As Amtrak embarks on a six-year push to ensure more than 300 stations meet requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act, it must have adequate staffing and a system in place that ensures projects aren’t delayed by disputes, according to a report Tuesday by the rail service’s inspector general.
Amtrak is well beyond a July 2010 deadline for ensuring that intercity rail stations meet requirements under the ADA — a timetable that also has proved costly. In December, Amtrak agreed to pay $2.25 million to settle civil claims that it discriminated against disabled passengers by failing to accommodate people in wheelchairs or those with limited mobility at its stations.
Amtrak has made progress, according to the report, which said the passenger rail brought 36 stations into compliance between October 2017 and April 2021. But it still faces a significant backlog, with 312 stations in need of ADA updates, the report said. Its plan to bring the stations into compliance by 2027 could be hampered by inadequate staffing and planning, the inspector general found, while also noting that Amtrak is better positioned that in previous years to complete the work.
The passenger rail system has addressed issues raised in previous IG reports that stymied efforts. However, the report said, plans could be jeopardized because staff is stretched thin.
“This increase in program activity without a commensurate increase in staffing and contractors will challenge the program team, which is already stretched,” the report said. “Managers from the Planning and Strategy department and the Procurement department told us they do not have enough staff to implement the additional planned projects and already face difficulties managing current projects.”
Planning documents reviewed by auditors did not identify how Amtrak would use the 46 contractors and eight full-time employees who are part of the ADA Stations team to meet the deadline.
In a written response to the report, Amtrak largely concurred with the inspector general’s recommendations, saying it would assess staffing as part of a report to be completed by the end of October. Amtrak officials acknowledged in the report that “it currently does not have enough staff to manage additional projects or monitor the contractors it hired to support them.”
The IG also said Amtrak’s financial oversight of its contractors may be lacking.
Auditors found that Amtrak has not fully reviewed charges for work completed between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2020, and it might not have adequate staffing to do so.
Auditors identified $81 million in “questioned costs” — charges that weren’t supported by documentation, the report said. The report did not suggest the charges were inaccurate, but that they had not been properly reviewed.
The report cited an example where an Amtrak employee was responsible for reviewing invoices from 46 contract workers involved in a $176 million contract for work on the 312 stations not in compliance. Given the employee’s other responsibilities, the report said, “he cannot adequately do so given his other duties.”
In instances where Amtrak must negotiate with other parties on work to bring stations into compliance, the IG said officials should offer clearer guidance to resolve disagreements that can result in delays. As of December, negotiations over work at 13 stations, were unresolved — creating delays that can increase costs significantly, the report said. It cited work on the station in Elko, Nev., where a dispute has stalled the project for more than 10 years.
“Given the increase in stations that may experience such impasses with third parties, [Amtrak] can be more prepared to use the tools it has available to resolve such issues to help it achieve its goal,” the report said.
Auditors also found that passenger information displays at some stations did not meet ADA requirements because they used the wrong font size.
In its written response to the report, Amtrak said it would consider changes to oversight of contractor invoices, but noted that under its current system, multiple people in different departments are responsible for vetting the paperwork. Amtrak said it would review a sampling of timesheets and invoices to ensure the amounts submitted were appropriate.
Amtrak also said its guidance for dealing with third-party disputes over work at stations was sufficient but said it would move to outline steps that teams can take to address those situations.
This article originally appeared on Washington Post