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Report rekindles engineering argument

Sean Ryan
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The longstanding debate over how much work the state should contract to private engineers is resurfacing in the wake of a state audit released Tuesday.

The audit (PDF) revealed that on 125 projects, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation hired private engineers even though cost estimates (PDF) completed between March 2007 and June 2008 indicated it would be cheaper to use in-house staff. WisDOT estimated it would cost $1.16 million more to hire private consultants than to use in-house staff for the projects.

The department is turning to private engineers more often because it does not have enough employees to do the work, said Mark Klipstein, president of the Wisconsin State Engineering Association, which represents engineers employed by government agencies.

“The state staff is less and less, and the DOT has been going more and more in the direction of getting consultants to do the work,” said Klipstein, a project manager in WisDOT’s southeast region. “(Private consultants) are actually being housed by us now. When you go to an office, you don’t know who the state staff is.”

The 125 projects were among 214 on which WisDOT compared in-house costs with those of private engineers. WisDOT awarded all of the contracts to private engineers, but 84 of those projects were not more expensive using outside help, and five included work that WisDOT staff had the skills to perform.

Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and co-chairman of the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Audit, said his committee will probe deeper into the public-versus-private question. Barca said he needs more information before deciding whether the state should pull away from using private engineers.

But, he said, the audit’s report that WisDOT relies on private engineers more than other state transportation departments is reason enough to ask more questions.

“Are we enlightened here in Wisconsin?” Barca asked. “Or are we doing something that, in fact, isn’t as wise?”

The audit reported WisDOT hired private consultants (PDF) on 48.2 percent of its state highway projects between fiscal years 2003 and 2007. By comparison, Illinois estimated private engineers do 30 percent of its projects, and Michigan estimated 50 percent, according to the audit. But Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Minnesota reported consultants perform less than 10 percent of the work.

The audit recommended WisDOT do a better job keeping records on its use of private consultants and report to the Legislature with more detailed information in August. WisDOT’s contracting records do not indicate exactly what services the engineers provide, which makes it difficult to analyze whether they’re being used effectively, said State Auditor Janice Mueller.

“Are they a leader?” Mueller asked. “Are they one of the inspectors? Just more and better information is needed, is our view.”

The Legislative Audit Bureau created the report at the request of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee after indications Streu Construction Co., Two Rivers, was not paving thick enough concrete on WisDOT highways.

The audit did not find proof highways were not being built to specifications, but it found projects where contractors and WisDOT were not keeping enough records about pavement thickness tests.

The audit studied 20 WisDOT projects performed between 2006 and 2008 and found 11 of them did not have enough documentation proving contractors measured highways to confirm they were built to the correct thickness. The audit made a number of recommendations to WisDOT to improve its quality control and warned those improvements should be complete in time to affect work on projects receiving federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money.

“It’s certainly something that the federal government looks at and the state as well,” Mueller said. “I know and have heard from the DOT that they’re working hard to make improvements.”

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