Transportation Services:

Better Dissemination and Oversight of DOT's Guidance Could Lead to Improved Access for Limited English-Proficient Populations

GAO-06-52: Published: Nov 2, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 2, 2005.

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More than 10 million people in the United States are of limited English proficiency (LEP), in that they do not speak English at all or do not speak English well. These persons tend to rely on public transit more than English speakers. Executive Order 13166 directs federal agencies to develop guidance for their grantees on making their services accessible to LEP persons. The Department of Transportation (DOT) issued its guidance in 2001, with revised guidance pending issuance. This report reviews (1) the language access services transit agencies and metropolitan planning organizations have provided, and the effects and costs of these services; (2) how DOT assists its grantees in providing language access services; and (3) how DOT monitors its grantees' provision of these services.

Transit agencies and metropolitan planning organizations provide a variety of language access services, predominantly in Spanish, but the effects and costs of these services are largely unknown. Types of services provided included, among other things, translated brochures and signs; multilingual telephone lines; bilingual drivers; and interpreters at public meetings. However, few agencies we visited had conducted an assessment of the language needs in their service areas, or had conducted an evaluation of their language access efforts. As a result, it is unclear whether agencies' efforts are comprehensive enough to meet the needs of LEP persons, and community groups in the areas we visited saw important gaps in agencies' services. In addition, although those costs are largely unknown, several agencies saw providing language access as a cost of doing business, not as an additional cost. However, if efforts were to be expanded to include additional services or languages, agency officials told us that costs could become prohibitive. DOT assists grantees in providing language access through its guidance and other activities, but DOT has made limited efforts to ensure that grantees are aware of the available assistance, which was not often accessed by the agencies we visited. This assistance includes DOT's guidance--which provides a five-step framework for how to provide meaningful language access--as well as workshops and peer-exchange programs that include language access practices, and training courses that touch on language issues. DOT also participates in a federal LEP clearinghouse, http://www.lep.gov. However, few agencies we visited had accessed these resources. Several local officials stated that easily accessible training and assistance specific to language access and examples of how to implement DOT's guidance could help them more effectively provide access to LEP populations. Transit agencies' and metropolitan planning organizations' provision of language access services are monitored through in-depth civil rights compliance reviews and two broader reviews--triennial reviews of transit agencies and planning certification reviews. However, these reviews do not have consistent criteria for determining whether an agency is deficient in providing such services. Furthermore, these reviews do not fully reflect Executive Order 13166 or DOT's guidance. Without thorough and consistent monitoring that takes into account the guidance, local agencies' language access activities will likely remain varied and inconsistent.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that transit agencies and MPOs understand their responsibilities to provide language access, and to ensure that they are providing adequate language access to their services and their transportation planning and decision-making processes, the Secretary of Transportation should more fully incorporate the revised LEP guidance into current review processes by including more specific questions regarding language access to the planning process and involvement of LEP communities in planning certification reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FTA and FHWA have prepared two additional questions to add to the Certification Review Handbook: 1. Has the region performed any analysis as to whether there is a group (or groups) that is (are) limited in their comprehension of the English language? If so, how has the region reached out to this group with their limited English proficiency (LEP)? If not, what steps were taken to address the needs of individuals with limited proficiency in the English language? How are these activities documented in the MPO's Participation Plan? 2. On an annual basis, the MPO self-certifies that it complies with all federal laws and regulations, which includes Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the need to reach-out to segments of the community that are hard to reach and not traditionally involved in transportation planning. Please describe what groups have been contacted and involved in the planning process and how this outreach has been documented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that transit agencies and MPOs understand their responsibilities to provide language access, and to ensure that they are providing adequate language access to their services and their transportation planning and decision-making processes, the Secretary of Transportation should more fully incorporate the revised LEP guidance into current review processes by including questions on whether agencies have conducted assessments, having language access plans, and having evaluation and monitoring mechanisms in place in Title VI compliance reviews and triennial reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOT has revised its Title VI circular to incorporate the Limited English-Proficient (LEP) guidance. The circular requests that all recipients and sub-recipients follow the instructions in the LEP guidance and also includes examples of measures that can be used to overcome barriers that may prevent LEP populations from participating in the public involvement process.

    Recommendation: To enhance and improve transit agencies' and MPOs' language access activities, the Secretary of Transportation, when issuing DOT's revised LEP guidance, should publicize the availability of existing federal resources on LEP issues, including workshops, http://www.lep.gov, peer-exchange programs, and available training to transit agencies and MPOs, and make these resources easily accessible through an explicit link to LEP Assistance on the Transportation Planning Capacity Building Program's Web site.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOT has taken several actions to publicize the available resources on LEP issues. These actions included: (1) convening civil rights training that includes the LEP guidance in Texas, Ohio, and Maryland in 2006 and planning to conduct 8-10 additional training sessions in 2007 and 2008; (2) posting the latest guidance and information on the appropriate DOT Web sites, e.g., DOT posted a new publication on engaging LEP populations in transportation decision making on its Planning and Capacity Building Web site and it posted FTA presentations on civil rights training sessions on the department's Civil Rights Web site; and (3)notifying grantees of available resources through periodic e-mail letters, for example, the new handbook for implementing the LEP guidance was publicized to grantees through a "Dear FTA Grantee" email.

    Recommendation: To enhance and improve transit agencies' and metropolitan planning organizations' (MPO) language access activities, the Secretary of Transportation, when issuing DOT's revised LEP guidance, should provide additional technical assistance, such as templates or examples, to aid these agencies in developing assessments of the size, location, and needs of the LEP population; plans for implementing language access services; and evaluations of the effectiveness of agencies' language access services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2007, DOT issued a handbook for transit agencies on implementing the DOT LEP Guidance. This handbook provides templates, examples, guidance, and other information that can assist local agencies (including MPOs) in effectively implementing the DOT LEP guidance. DOT notified grant recipients of this resource as part of a "Dear FTA Grantee" email that notified recipients of the updated Title VI circular, which was published on April 13, 2007.

    Recommendation: To improve awareness and understanding of DOT funding recipients' responsibilities to provide language access services, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, upon final issuance of DOT's LEP guidance, should ensure that the guidance is distributed to all DOT funding recipients through a policy memorandum or other direct methods and direct regional personnel to make grantees in their areas fully aware of the existence of the guidance, and of grantee responsibilities under the guidance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The revised guidance, as well as a list of current and planned technical assistance being developed by the FTA Office of Civil Rights, was transmitted to FTA grantees in all regions in June 2006. Furthermore, FTA has been actively working to make FTA regional civil rights officers familiar with the guidance and FTA conducts ongoing workshops to ensure that regional staff understand the guidance.

    Recommendation: To ensure that transit agencies and MPOs understand their responsibilities to provide language access, and to ensure that they are providing adequate language access to their services and their transportation planning and decision-making processes, the Secretary of Transportation should more fully incorporate the revised LEP guidance into current review processes by establishing consistent norms for what constitutes a deficiency in the provision of language access across and within these review processes, ensuring that what constitutes a deficiency could directly lead to lesser service for LEP persons or complaints against the agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To improve consistency across reviews with regard to deficiencies, FTA has revised the instructions in the triennial review handbook to indicate that all recipients are required to conduct a Limited English-Proficient (LEP) needs assessment regardless of whether a complaint has been made. These requirements flow out of the revised Title VI circular that was issued on April 13, 2007, which fully incorporates the LEP guidance. DOT has further committed to on-going monitoring of these review processes to ensure that deficiencies are being defined in a consistent manner.

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