The 2017 hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to public transit facilities in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. Access to transit plays an important role in a community’s post-disaster recovery, and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) said in May 2018 it would provide $233 million in hurricane relief to 52 local transit agencies.
Transit agencies can apply to FTA or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for funding after a disaster. FTA has primary responsibility for providing disaster assistance funding to transit agencies if it receives an appropriation from Congress. If FTA does not receive an appropriation, transit agencies can apply to FEMA for funding.
These agencies coordinate their efforts but a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review found one case in which both agencies approved funding for the same expenses. Thankfully, this was a relatively small amount, although still significant not only in this instance, but also in highlighting the risk that such duplication could be repeated.
Of the $233 million of appropriated emergency relief funds FTA provided to 52 transit agencies for response, recovery, and rebuilding projects, most went to Puerto Rico ($198 million). Most of Puerto Rico’s funds, and around half the funds FTA allocated ($116 million), will be distributed to one transit system—Tren Urbano—San Juan’s rail-transit service provider.
GAO’s November 13 report described how FTA and FEMA shared information and coordinated efforts, yet both agencies still approved about $35,000 to one applicant in Collier County for the same expenses – namely the repair of a transit facility and a light pole. The GAO review found that FTA awarded a grant in April 2019 that included expenses for which FEMA had already obligated funds in January 2019. Although FTA contacted FEMA prior to the award to inquire whether the applicant had received FEMA funding, FEMA did not respond within five days, and per an agreement between FTA and FEMA, FTA processed the application.
After GAO identified the duplicate funding, FTA and FEMA took steps to limit the potential for duplicate funding; FTA, for example, changed its policy of moving applications forward after five days if FEMA does not respond.
FTA and FEMA officials noted challenges they face in identifying transit expenses in the applications they receive. For example, they may be unaware that a transit agency received FEMA funds if it received those funds through a larger entity such as a city, county, or state government. Although the amount of funding FEMA and FTA approved for the same expenses was relatively small, without addressing these challenges, FTA and FEMA will continue to face the risk that both agencies will approve funding for the same expense in the future.
FTA is updating its procedures to ensure that an FTA grant does not contain any expenses for which the applicant may have previously requested reimbursement.
Meanwhile, FEMA is enhancing its Public Assistance Grants Manager System to address the risk of duplicate funding as identified by GAO. This includes implementing a new functionality for data exporting, sorting, and filtering to better identify transit-related damages and improved tracking to identify projects that have received FTA funding. These improvements are expected to be completed September 30, 2020.