Wisconsin’s new transportation secretary vowed Tuesday to “change the culture” at the Department of Transportation after an audit found it underestimated highway project costs by more than $3 billion, in part by failing to account for inflation.
Dave Ross’ comments came during a legislative hearing on a recent state audit of the DOT highway program. Lawmakers said the audit raises broad questions about DOT management, including whether lawmakers must oversee highway projects more closely.
Lawmakers and Ross signaled they will adopt recommendations in the audit, which Ross called a “template” to improve the agency.
Ross replaced Mark Gottlieb as DOT secretary in January. Acknowledging the audit found “inefficiencies,” Ross told members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee that DOT must become more transparent and “break down silos” between its regional offices.
“We need to become more performance-driven. We need to become more accurate,” Ross said. “We need to build back up DOT’s confidence in your eyes.”
As examples of where the department must improve, Ross highlighted cost overruns on two Dane County projects: expansion and reconstructions of Verona Road and the Madison Beltline, and of Interstate 39-90 from the Beltline to the Illinois state line. Since lawmakers approved both projects in 2011, the Verona Road price tag has soared from $150 million to $283.3 million and the I-39-90 cost rose from $715 million to $1.2 billion.
Lawmakers hinted at the implications the audit findings could have for the state’s next transportation budget, debate on which is expected to be contentious.
The audit, in addition to project cost overruns, also found the DOT could save money by taking steps to curb engineering and construction costs. The findings have become a rallying cry for lawmakers, who say DOT must find more cost savings before they contemplate increasing gas taxes or vehicle fees. That includes some conservative GOP lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker, whose 2017-19 budget proposal holds the line on taxes and fees.
“Giving (DOT) more money would be absolutely the wrong thing to do at this point,” Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said.
Others, such as Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, see it differently. He, along with fellow Assembly GOP leaders and legislative Democrats, is open to tax or fee hikes to resolve the transportation-funding imbalance.
Nygren noted the audit findings also say Wisconsin’s highway conditions are deteriorating and compare poorly to neighboring states. “Even after we make those reforms (outlined in the audit), we’re still in a position where, I believe, there’s a shortfall,” Nygren said.
The bill draft circulated before Tuesday’s hearing would require DOT to account for inflation and other factors, such as environmental studies, engineering or land acquisition, in future project cost estimates.
It also has recommendations for actions by DOT, including providing more information to lawmakers about highway project costs and compiling such information, including explanations for major cost increases, in a central location.Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Green Bay, co-chairman of the panel, said he expects the panel to watch the DOT closely in coming months to see how it responds to the audit.
“This committee is going to have to have ongoing dialogue … back and forth with the agency,” Cowles said.