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Highway Infrastructure: Better Alignment with Leading Practices Would Improve DOT's Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program

GAO-23-105575 Published: May 24, 2023. Publicly Released: May 24, 2023.
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Fast Facts

When the Department of Transportation funded construction of the U.S. highway network decades ago, some highways cut through neighborhoods—disconnecting communities.

Now some cities are either removing highways or building structures called "caps" over certain sections of highway to reuse the land for community and economic development. In Feb. 2023, Transportation awarded funds to 45 projects through a new pilot program to reconnect communities.

But the pilot's design doesn't fully follow leading practices, such as having a plan to evaluate if it's meeting overall goals. We recommended that Transportation address this and other issues.

Plans are underway to remove a section of Interstate 81 that runs through Syracuse, New York.

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What GAO Found

In recent years, some localities have removed highways or built structures known as “highway caps” over sections of highways to repurpose the land for community or economic development. GAO identified 21 projects to remove or cap highways that received federal funding from fiscal years 2012 through 2021, the most current data available at the time of our review. Because there is no statutory or regulatory definition of a highway removal or highway cap, these projects can take many forms. For example, a highway removal project could downsize a highway to a boulevard or remove and rebuild a highway in another location. Officials from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) told GAO that, consistent with statute, these projects must have a transportation nexus to be eligible to use federal-aid highway formula grants. Further, officials said that FHWA makes eligibility decisions on a case-by-case basis according to project circumstances. These projects may also be eligible for certain DOT discretionary grants.

Through a review of eight selected highway removal and capping projects, GAO identified five key considerations to inform project sponsors' effective planning of such projects: (1) establishing goals that reflect community and transportation objectives, (2) analyzing potential project effects to weigh alternatives, (3) planning for the equitable use of project land, (4) conceptualizing removal and capping projects to engage stakeholders and address concerns, and (5) developing measures to assess community goals and other project outcomes.

While the Department of Transportation (DOT) made substantial progress implementing the first of five funding rounds of the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program, GAO found that the program does not fully align with GAO's leading practices for effective pilot program design. According to DOT officials, they faced time constraints in setting up the program and awarding initial funding, which hindered DOT's ability to fully meet all leading practices by the first round. In February 2023, DOT announced 45 projects would receive $185 million in first year awards. By taking steps now to fully align with these leading practices, DOT will be better positioned to improve future funding rounds and assess whether the pilot program is meeting its objective of reconnecting communities.

Alignment of Department of Transportation's (DOT) Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program with GAO's Leading Practices for Pilot Program Design


Why GAO Did This Study

Federal funding helped build a national network of highways, producing economic and mobility benefits. But some of these highways divided neighborhoods. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act enacted in 2021 required DOT to establish the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program to “restore community connectivity” through activities such as highway removal or capping.

The act and House Report 117-99 included provisions for GAO to review aspects of federally funded highway removal and capping projects. This report addresses: (1) highway removal and capping projects that received federal funds from 2012 through 2021; (2) key considerations for effective planning of selected projects; and (3) how the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program aligns with leading practices.

GAO reviewed relevant statutes and regulations and DOT data on federal highway funding, and interviewed state and local stakeholders for eight projects selected for a range of goals. GAO also reviewed DOT pilot program documents and compared them with leading practices for pilot program design that GAO previously identified.


GAO is making three recommendations to DOT on the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program: (1) establish performance measures for objectives, (2) assess data and evaluate pilot program results, and (3) identify a means to make scalability decisions. DOT concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should establish performance measures for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program. Such performance measures should indicate DOT's progress in meeting the pilot program's objectives. (Recommendation 1)
DOT concurred with this recommendation, but as of January 2024 it has not yet implemented it. DOT has identified a draft list of primary and secondary performance measures for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot (RCP) program, including (1) measures used by several DOT discretionary programs and (2) measures developed specifically for the RCP. The Department informed GAO that these performance measures represent a menu of industry-standard metrics that are mapped to the RCP program objectives and relate to objectives that may be achieved by RCP-awarded projects. However, these measures have not been refined or finalized. DOT officials stated that they intend to complete this work by July 1, 2024. We will continue to monitor DOT's progress in implementing this recommendation.
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should develop and implement a plan to collect and analyze data and evaluate results of the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program. Such a plan should detail the specific data to be collected, a methodology for assessing this data, and a plan for evaluating the pilot program's results with timelines for completion. (Recommendation 2)
DOT concurred with this recommendation, but as of January 2024 it has not been implemented. Previously, DOT informed GAO that the fiscal year (FY) 2022 and 2023 notices of funding opportunity for the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program included a requirement for grantees to participate in data collection and analysis activities that would help DOT evaluate results of the pilot. The Department stated that the timeline for completing its plan to evaluate results is contingent on the execution of grant agreements with FY 2022 grantees. The Department plans to finalize its plan by January 1, 2025, and subsequently implement that plan to produce a required report to Congress by January 1, 2026. We will continue to follow DOT's progress in implementing this recommendation.
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should identify a means to assess lessons learned from the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program to inform decisions on whether or how to scale or integrate the pilot with other DOT efforts. (Recommendation 3)
DOT concurred with this recommendation, but as of January 2024 it has not yet implemented it. According to DOT, the Reconnecting Communities Pilot program will seek opportunities to collect feedback from all interest groups to improve its procedures for future funding rounds for the pilot. The officials also stated that the lessons-learned and scalability decisions will be informed by grant recipient outcomes, the ability to attract high-quality applications, and the determination of whether the program is benefitting disadvantaged communities. According to DOT, these criteria will be identified by January 1, 2026. We will continue to monitor DOT's efforts to implement this recommendation.

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