The Timing of Issuance of OIG Critique about Airports Grants is Most Unfortunate

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ARRA Lessons Learned: Opportunities Exist for FAA To Further Improve Its Oversight of Airport Grant Payments

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The ever vigilant Office of Inspector General of the US Department of Transportation has issued a report likely to enflame the rhetoric surrounding sequestration. The OIG tracked the FAA’s oversight of airport grants funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). That legislation sent $1.1 billion into FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP). While the Congress always expects that the FAA and other agencies to carefully distribute those dollars, this legislation set unusually tight timeframes for distributing funds and added another criteria– favoring projects that could be completed in 2 years.

A massive increase in obligating authority, a new set of criteria and a tighter deadline to get these dollars out of the FAA and into the accounts of airports are the elements in a formula designed to create errors. It is, therefore, not surprising that the OIG was able to find fault with the FAA’s administration of ARRA and AIP.

The Inspector General found that inadequate oversight by the FAA resulted in the improper payments totaling $1.4M out of a total of $1.1 B. That fraction constitutes a small margin of error by the FAA. The report found that the FAA relied too heavily on the airports’ representation that the projects meet the statutory standards. The specific problems included:

  1. Use of ARRA funds to cover prior year work,
  2. Inappropriately mixing ARRA and AIP funds,
  3. Accepting single bids for projects without conducting cost comparisons,
  4. Inaccurate descriptions of scope in project documents, and
  5. Not maintaining sufficient records of ARRA-funded work.

Those are valuable lessons, if the Congress decides again to infuse massive funds into the airport infrastructure under a new set of rules.

What is most unfortunate is the timing of the OIG’s release of its findings. The Congress is in a high state of agita about federal spending; this extreme anxiety has been caused by sequestration. Any news about less than perfect spending of dollars while the FAA is furloughing employees will likely precipitate a pointed letter from Congress to the Administrator about such errors. To compound the problem, Congress’ design of sequestration specifically exempted all federal employees involved in issuing grants, which ARRA was and AIP is. This untimely report is likely to make life difficult for the Administrator, the Associate Administrator for Airports and the airports staff. On behalf of all of those able, hardworking employees, thanks, Mr. OIG!

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