The U.S. Department of Transportation's lead watchdog says that developing safety plans, inspecting bridges and tunnels and managing the future of air traffic technology will be among the biggest challenges facing the department in 2014.

Inspector General Calvin Scovel's newly released list outlines seven big challenges facing the department next year. At the same time it's tasked with implementing many of the rules and requirements from MAP-21, the new highway bill enacted last year, the department will be preparing for the debate about the next highway bill since MAP-21 expires this fall. Scovel's priorities for the department follow.

Improving Federal Aviation Administration oversight

Scovel -- like many others -- highlighted the crash of Asiana Airlines 214 as evidence suggesting it's time to examine pilot training and qualifications. He says the agency has delayed issuing rules required by a 2010 law designed to develop pilot mentoring and leadership programs, as well as processes for managing safety risks. He says the agency has been slow to implement a new database of pilot records. Scovel also expressed concern about the growing rate of "serious runway incursions," in which collisions at airports are only narrowly avoided.

Figuring out NextGen

NextGen, the FAA's ambitious move to modernize the air traffic system by switching from a navigation system based on satellite instead of radar, has been mired by setbacks and delays. "FAA has been unable to set realistic plans, budgets, and expectations for key NextGen programs due to a lack of firm requirements for NextGen’s most critical capabilities," Scovel writes. He says a key challenge in 2014 will be addressing the causes of cost increases and delays that have plagued NextGen's rollout.

Strengthening highway, transit and pipeline safety

The Inspector General's office has repeatedly urged the Federal Highway Administration to improve oversight of state bridge programs. That call took on added urgency in the wake of the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge earlier this year. Last year's highway bill also required FHWA to establish a tunnel inspection program. Scovel's report highlights the added safety oversight responsibility the Federal Transit Administration is working to implement as well.

Improving oversight of surface transportation spending

The report notes the huge responsibility DOT has in overseeing $13 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief funds. But Scovel says the department has opportunities to more effectively allocate and oversee that money.  He also called on FHWA to take a more consistent approach to project oversight. Meanwhile, last year's highway bill required DOT to emphasize performance-based investments. That means DOT must establish new rules and standards for things like safety, congestion reduction and infrastructure conditions.

Implementing expanded Federal Railroad Administration responsibilities

In 2008, a federal law required the FRA to establish a Natoinal Rail Plan. "Five years later," Scovel writes, "the agency has only disbursed 16 percent of the $10.1 billion in grant funds for the High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program." Scovel is also concerned that FRA's progress on defining its safety priorities has been "limited." The Inspector General called on the agency to expedite some rulemaking needed to address rail safety hazards.

Saving taxpayers money

While President Obama and the Office of Management and Budget have touted initiatives calling for efficient and accountable government spending, those goals continue "to be a challenge for DOT management," Scovel writes. "Our audits have identified opportunities for DOT to better manage its contracts and resources and save taxpayer dollars." Indeed, in recent years, DOT has actually increased its spending on "cost-reimbursement" contracts, which have a potential for waste because they don't give contractors an incentive to control costs. That trend comes at a time when government-wide initiatives specifically call for a move away from those types of deals.

Modernizing and securing IT infrastructure

While the department has made some strides, its information systems are vulnerable to security threats and risks, according to Scovel. The program doesn't meet key OMB requirements intended to protect IT systems.

This story was originally published by Governing.com

Ryan Holeywell  |  Contributing Writer