The Oversight Gap in Team Obama’s High-Speed Rail Plan

The White House’s economic stimulus law included several large new spending programs, from $4 billion for broadband to $2.4 billion for electric car batteries. But nothing has aroused so much interest — and criticism — as the $8 billion for American high-speed rail.

Under the circumstances, one might think that lawmakers would pay extra attention to oversight over the high-speed rail spending. But that’s far from the case, as a senior official at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) told the House transportation committee yesterday.

Mark Yachmetz, the FRA’s associate administrator for railroad development, noted that the stimulus allowed only "one-quarter of 1 percent" of the high-speed rail pot to be used on oversight as well as the logistics of evaluating applications from more than two dozen different states — which have totaled $57 billion.

"We’re using those funds up right now during application reviews," Yachmetz said. "If the
situation isn’t addressed, we’re going to have significant problems when it comes to project implementation."

Yachmetz also observed that the stimulus law didn’t provide for any new positions at the agencies in charge of setting up a national high-speed rail program. "We will handle the applications," he said, "but no, we don’t have the resources we need for a mature program."

Members of the House committee appeared receptive to Yachmetz’s call for help with oversight. But the potential legislative vehicle for any forthcoming FRA oversight aid remains to be seen.

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