The nation's high-speed rail push put the Federal Railroad Administration on a new track, with some questioning whether the agency is up for the journey.
FRA was primarily a safety watchdog before the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act (PRIIA) was passed in 2008. Since then, it has been accused of being understaffed, underprepared and ill-equipped to manage the funding for the rail project.
A November 2009 report by the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General said the agency "may not be prepared to ensure the long-term success of the new high-speed rail program" and even those within the agency would admit that the new responsibilities were overwhelming.
Twenty months after the PRIIA handed the new authority to FRA, that assessment is still true, said Mitch Behm, assistant inspector general for rail, maritime and economic analysis at DOT.
FRA "likes to compare what they're doing to doing surgery at the same time as the diagnosis," Behm said. "They're still in triage mode when there are so many things that have to be addressed all at the same time."
FRA Administrator Joe Szabo, however, says his staff has stepped things up despite being swamped with new responsibilities and a short time frame.
"I believe the agency has adapted and continues to adapt extremely well," Szabo said. "There's no question that this is a significant addition to our core mission. ... It's been a matter of building up internally."
The transition from an agency focused on safety to one handing out multimillion-dollar grants was unexpectedly quick and surprising for those at FRA. With the PRIIA, the agency's staff of just more than 900 people in charge of safety was expected to research the net benefits of beefing up intercity rail. And where previously FRA had worked with one grantee -- Amtrak -- it was now developing policies and procedures for a nationwide grant program.
But the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act four months later put the project on the fast track, giving FRA another $8 billion to manage and set up rapid grant timelines for new high-speed lines. The stimulus dollars, designed to bring jobs and more economic growth, had to be spent quickly, so suddenly planning for grant applications and long-term projects were given deadlines of months rather than years.
Szabo, who was confirmed to his post in April 2009, said the passage of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act put a strain on the agency, forcing it to not only hire additional staffers, but also borrow people from within DOT. Even worse, that hiring had to be done as the staff simultaneously began work, essentially forcing the agency to do administrative work on the fly.
The fact that the initial round of grant requests was unexpectedly high, totaling more than 10 times the amount budgeted, did not make matters any easier.
"The budget cycle always trails behind current programs and current needs," Szabo said. "In a perfect world, you'd like to be doing the hiring ahead of the program. In the real world, it's not an option. I think this agency adapted extremely well to the restraints."
More than a year later, things have begun to settle down a bit in the agency. FRA received 77 applications for the latest round of high-speed rail grants, with requests totaling $8.5 billion for $2.3 billion in grants (E&ENews PM, Aug. 16).
The staff is also working on a final rail plan that lays out the best practices for high-speed and passenger rail, as well as a comprehensive system including freight rail. Szabo said a preliminary draft of the plan was sent to Congress last October and is set to be released by its Sept. 15 deadline.
FRA was blasted earlier this year when it handed out grants months later than expected. Rep. Jon Mica (R-Fla.) assailed the agency, calling the work "amateur hour."
"I'm very concerned that FRA's work missed the mark and maybe hijacked the ability of the country to see some true high-speed rail operations," Mica, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told USA Today in March.
Mica has requested documents regarding the selection of high-speed rail grant recipients from DOT as part of a review of the standards for selection. Months later, Mica also called on the Government Accountability Office to review the grant process.
"I am greatly concerned about the lack of transparency in the Department's evaluation and selection process," Mica wrote in a letter to GAO.
In written testimony submitted to the Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, DOT Deputy Inspector General Ann Calvaresi-Barr also expressed concern about the "challenges" the agency faced. Specifically, she noted that the agency had not issued formal guidance for grant applicants to forecast ridership and revenue.
Assistant Inspector General Behm said that was still a problem and that his office was preparing a report detailing the best practices for setting guidelines for such forecasts. That report is expected in the spring in order to smooth problems in accepting new grants next year.
But FRA's partners during the grant process have not reported the same problems. Rachel Wall, a spokesman for the California High Speed Rail Authority, said the state's dealings with FRA have been "satisfactory" and that the agency has "the appropriate staff at the appropriate time."
Sean O'Shea, the vice president of Building America's Future, also said the agency was doing a good job.
"I think for what they were handed, they've done a remarkable job," O'Shea said, whose group is advocating more high-speed rail in addition to other infrastructure improvements. "I'm sure there were disappointments for cities and states, but on balance I think they've done a really good job."
Szabo said that kind of feedback was important for the agency and pointed specifically to a resolution passed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. In it, AASHTO's board of directors says it "extends its gratitude to the Federal Railroad Administration for its outreach efforts to provide guidance and critical national leadership to implement the President's vision for high-speed rail in America in a short period of time."
"Those outside validators and those professionals speak with the greatest voice," Szabo said.
The biggest problem for FRA, according to sources, was simply a drought of knowledgeable staff. Not only did the agency's existing work force not have a backbone in grant approval or oversight, there were also simply too few people to handle all the new duties. The agency absorbed a number of staffers from other agencies with DOT, including the Federal Transit Administration and the American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials.
"I was incredibly impressed with the staff," Szabo said. "Certainly there was a lot of caffeine and sugar ... a lot of late nights and weekends."
Szabo said that in the early stages, the staff was propelled not just by sugar highs but "enthusiasm" about "giving birth to something brand new."
"Obviously, a high level of enthusiasm can only carry you so far, but we're getting more staff," he said.
Besides contracting from other departments, FRA requested 62 new positions the following year. Spokesman Warren Flatau said the agency is requesting 25 more for passenger and freight rail for the next fiscal year.
The key, though, is cooperation with other staffs within DOT. Szabo said the expertise from within the department was invaluable in getting the grant work done on time. That cooperation has led to greater interaction between the agencies on the rail projects. That is a change for a department notorious for its historically segmented approach.
"In Ray LaHood's DOT, there are no silos," Szabo said. "It's important that when high-speed rail is built out, it interacts with every mode of transportation. These things have to link up seamlessly."
Behm said he was not sure how closely linked the agencies had been before but that the staff sharing had eased some concerns in his office about FRA's preparedness. It could also signal a new outlook for DOT, especially as LaHood pushes intermodal and holistic transportation planning.
The surface transportation act proposed by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) would create an undersecretary of transportation for intermodalism and strengthen the Office of Intermodalism in an effort to create more communication and interaction within the department, much like the work done at FRA.
Beyond the staff shortage, the problems lie simply in implementing standards for grants. Behm said that right now the department is getting "apples and oranges" in their applications, which can make it difficult to rate and compare applicants. Szabo said that is a problem that can be smoothed with more experience and with more input.
Things have not been helped by the high volume of responses and ultimately, life would be easier for the department if there were fewer applications. But Szabo said he would much prefer to have his staff be overwhelmed on a project this large and exciting. As a former official with the United Transportation Union and one of the first FRA heads plucked from the rail lines, he knows there is potential for high-speed rail in the United States.
"Historically, rail has been the forgotten mode," he said. "The level of enthusiasm from Congress and [the administration] on a bipartisan basis has been tremendous. Every time we put a round of grants out, it shows how oversubscribed and popular this is across the country."