Photo courtesy of VDOT

Photo courtesy of VDOT

IG report highlights challenges for DOT in 2014

The Inspector General’s (IG) office within the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a report late last year highlighting numerous challenges the agency faces in 2014 – especially in terms of beefing up motor carrier oversight, improving highway infrastructure, and implementing better cyber security protocols for its information technology (IT) systems.

“A safe and well-managed transportation system is key for the U.S. economy and the quality of life for the traveling public,” noted Inspector General Calvin Scovel III in the report. “The DOT provides over $70 billion annually to fund a wide range of programs. Consequently, it is critical for the department to provide rigorous stewardship of taxpayer funds while carrying out its mission.”

He emphasized that “safety remains the DOT’s top priority and with regard to highways, transit, and pipelines, the agency must address what Scovel dubbed “longstanding recommendations and new safety oversight requirements” in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21).

“Key priorities include implementing data-driven, risk-based oversight for bridge inspections; developing a national tunnel safety program; removing unsafe motor carriers from our Nation’s roads; setting effective policies for its newly expanded rail transit oversight role; and strengthening state pipeline safety programs,” he said.

Securing the DOT’s IT infrastructure also remains a top priority, Scovel pointed out, as the IG office continues to find information security deficiencies in critical systems. “To protect its mission and credibility, the department must help its operating administrations address cyber threats; protect sensitive information; and develop a strategic vision to better manage its current technologies, plan for future systems, and maximize cost savings,” he stressed.

The IG report made several specific recommendations in areas affecting the trucking industry, focusing on:

  • Improving safety oversight for motor carriers: Between 2010 and 2012, large truck and bus crashes decreased by 3.5% (from 129,587 to 125,063) while associated fatalities were also down by 4.9% (from 4,307 to 4,096). Yet though the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is taking actions to remove high-risk carriers from the road, DOT must take additional steps to implement MAP-21’s large truck and bus safety provisions, which include several rulemakings, programmatic changes, and reports to be completed in the next two years, the IG said.
  • Implementing more comprehensive motor coach safety rules: While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has the lead on MAP-21 provisions to strengthen motor coach safety regulations for improved occupant protection, passenger evacuation, and crash avoidance, FMCSA is still developing a rule the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended to address concerns on passenger carrier leases. FMCSA is also preparing to initiate a required rulemaking on safety inspections of passenger carrying vehicles.
  • Cracking down on "reincarnated" carriers: FMCSA issued a rule on revoking reincarnated carriers’ operating authority in response to an NTSB recommendation. Since the rule went into effect in May 2012, FMCSA has taken 43 actions, and is pursuing three more, against 123 companies to consolidate the records of reincarnated or affiliated carriers. Of the 46 actions, 38 involved motor carriers attempting to avoid existing out-of-service orders. FMCSA must also complete its pilot of a risk-based screening methodology to detect reincarnated carriers and take enforcement action against them to effectively implement the rule.
  • Improving motor carrier data collection: FMCSA published its long-delayed Unified Registration System (URS) final rule in August 2013, which should streamline the motor carrier registration process and, if properly implemented, enable the agency to maintain more accurate industry information. This includes automatic deactivation of DOT numbers for carriers who fail to update company information every two years. FMCSA must also ensure data quality in the measurement system it uses to evaluate motor carrier safety performance under the Compliance Safety Accountability (CSA) program and complete nationwide deployment of interventions, such as on- and off-site reviews, which are planned for later this year.

Tangentially related to trucking were recommendations in the IG report aimed at how DOT and its agencies manage transportation infrastructure issues:

  • One-fourth of the Nation’s more than 600,000 bridges are deficient according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Since 2006, The IG office has recommended that FHWA improve its oversight of state bridge programs by implementing a data-driven, risk-based approach to assessing state compliance with national bridge inspection standards, prioritizing and remediating national bridge safety risks, improving bridge inspection and inventory practices, and encouraging States’ effective use of bridge management systems. While FHWA revised its approach to bridge oversight in 2011 it still needs to implement remaining IG recommendations and meet MAP-21 provisions for strengthening bridge inspection and inventory standards.
  • Developing a new tunnel safety program is required under MAP-21, which also requires FHWA to establish a new national tunnel inspection program and a tunnel inventory. These requirements include setting tunnel inspection standards by 2015 with qualifications, certification procedures, and formal training for tunnel inspectors. Similar to FHWA’s national bridge inspection program and inventory, MAP-21 requires the states to inspect and periodically report on the condition of the nation’s tunnels. FHWA will need to take a number of steps, including issuing regulations that clearly specify what dimensions and characteristics constitute a tunnel ensuring the baseline inventory of highway tunnels is accurate, and establishing a process to assess inspection data.
  • The DOT needs to implement initiatives to expedite project delivery and reduce costs as required under MAP-21’s Subtitle C which, according to DOT, requires completion of 42 actions. To enable States to fully achieve Subtitle C’s anticipated project delivery benefits in a timely manner DOT must complete rulemakings—including a rule to expand use of categorical exclusions. DOT should also assign estimated completion dates, where feasible, for planned actions that do not have milestones specified by statute and track their progress.
  • DOT must also continue transitioning to a performance-based surface transportation investments, thus the agency must establish new rules, performance standards, and modify related oversight mechanisms. For example, DOT must implement new performance measures that incorporate the Department’s seven national goals: safety, infrastructure condition, congestion reduction, system reliability, freight movement and economic vitality, environmental sustainability, and reduced project delivery delays.
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