October 14, 2009
A citizen call to the state’s Fraud, Waste and Mismanagement hotline led to an audit of quality of road construction in Wisconsin. The caller’s complaint specifically mentioned the thickness of concrete pavement used in state highway projects.
But as the Legislative Audit Bureau uncovered problems with monitoring of road construction quality, they expanded the scope of the audit to look at the role of contract engineering consultants in inspecting and assuring the quality of road construction, the tests of materials and the tracking system used for monitoring quality inspections and materials tests.
The audit provided evidence the Department of Transportation (DOT) failed to provide adequate oversight. Documentation on tests of materials was missing which suggested required testing was never done. The audit findings raised questions about the accuracy and completeness of tests measuring the thickness and roughness of concrete and the adequacy of materials used in road construction.
The audit also raised questions about the significant increase in the use of private consultants as construction engineers. This fact makes it unclear whether DOT can effectively monitor road construction quality.
To follow-up on the questions, the Joint Committee on Audit recently held a public hearing which allowed legislators to question the DOT about its quality assurance process and its use of private consultants. Unfortunately, the hearing resulted in more questions than answers.
Legislators reviewed numbers showing a dramatic decline in the number of state engineers. Twenty years ago only eight percent of all dollars for construction engineers went to consulting firms. In Fiscal Year 2006-2007 seventy percent of all dollars for construction engineers went to outside consulting firms. The audit noted surrounding states seldom use outside consulting engineers with no Midwestern states using more than 50% outside consultants.
As more outside consultants are hired, the DOT loses its internal engineering capacity. The audit quoted the federal Governmental Accountability Office saying the further removed state staff become “from the day to day management of highway construction projects,” the less they are “able to develop the experience, skills and expertise needed to effectively oversee construction contractors and consultants.”
Every state project over a certain dollar threshold must have a cost benefit analysis done to determine if it is less expensive to have state employees rather than private contractors do the project. Over 18 months of the audit study period, 125 projects showed, by DOT’s own internal analysis, the project could have been done less expensively in house. Yet, in every case the state transportation department chose to hire an outside firm. The rationale for this, most often, was that DOT engineering staff was not available.
State Senator Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) shared with committee members her concern over the fact the DOT has nearly 1,000 full time equivalent state positions filled by outside consultants. Senator Lassa testified to the committee:
“When I read the audit report…it put in perspective many of the anecdotes I had been hearing from DOT employees among my constituents and throughout the state. Stories of consulting engineers working side by side with DOT staff, in DOT offices, being paid significantly more for doing the same work; Stories of consultants submitting obviously substandard plan, counting on DOT engineers to point out and correct deficiencies, effectively selling the DOT back its own expertise at a profit; Stories of DOT employees spending most of their time repairing the problems caused by the substandard work of contactors.”
The state auditor estimated Wisconsin is in the process of receiving an additional $529 million for in federal transportation funds through the economic stimulus program. The concern raised by several legislators is the need to deal with problems in the inspection and quality management of road construction immediately because the incoming dollars will put an even greater stress on a system not running too well.
One of the state engineers who testified summed up the importance of addressing these problems; “The quality of inspection has real measurable budgetary effects…If you can increase the average pavement and bridge life by as little as two years for a pavement or 5 years for a bridge you will cut the DOT construction budget by ten percent. This is no small amount of money in that DOT spends more than a billion dollars a year on construction.”
As stewards of the people’s money we must be certain the DOT is using the most cost effective and high quality materials and methods to construct a highway system that will serve future generations.