By SCOTT BAUER and TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Major highway projects over the past decade have cost twice as much as the Wisconsin Department of Transportation initially estimated, and the agency could do more to control expenses, according to a highly critical audit released Thursday.
The much-anticipated Legislative Audit Bureau report comes as the agency faces a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall and Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans who control the Legislature are sparring over how to solve it.
The audit found that 19 major completed highway projects over the past decade cost $1.5 billion — $772 million higher than the department initially expected. It also said the cost of 16 ongoing major highway projects also doubled — increasing by more than $3 billion — from the time they were approved to August 2016.
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The head of the state Department of Transportation says the agency will work to implement recommendations in a highly critical audit but he’s not accepting every point in the report.
The Legislative Audit Bureau report released Thursday faults WisDOT for dramatically underestimating project costs. WisDOT Secretary Dave Ross wrote in a letter attached to the report that the agency has worked to improve cost projections over the last six years and the audit examined projects dating as far back as the 1980s. He added that estimating costs is always risky and other states, including Minnesota, have seen project cost overruns.
He took issue with findings that WisDOT doesn’t comply with administrative rules and policies on public notification of future projects, saying the agency is in full compliance with state and federal notification requirements. Still, he says the agency will comply with the audit’s recommendations.
It said Wisconsin’s roads are in “considerably” worse shape than roads in six other Midwestern states.
“(The audit) will be devastating to the management of DOT,” Republican state Sen. Rob Cowles, co-chair of the Legislature’s Audit Committee, told WHBY on Thursday. “They have to do this whole thing differently.”
The audit bureau recommended that the agency use its money more effectively and improve how it manages highway planning, engineering, construction and maintenance. Last year, the department spent about $2.1 billion on state highways. The department hasn’t consistently used performance measures to improve its operations and can do more to control costs, the audit said. It also doesn’t sufficiently take into account how inflation and unexpected cost overruns affect the price tag of projects, the audit said.
Cowles said the underestimated costs made the projects more attractive to lawmakers, thus increasing the chance of the Legislature approving them. He stopped short of saying department officials were intentionally low-balling bids to get approval.
Walker, who canceled a series of public events scheduled for Thursday due to illness, has insisted that he won’t raise the gas tax or vehicle registration fees to plug the transportation budget shortfall. His plan is to borrow about half a billion dollars and delay about that much in ongoing major highway work.
Assembly Republicans are calling for $300 million in transportation-related tax and fee increases along with unspecified tax cuts elsewhere.
Walker’s spokesman Tom Evenson said the report doesn’t change the governor’s position.
“The bottom line is, we shouldn’t even be thinking about raising the gas tax or fees until we find every last cost savings at the DOT, and the audit shows we can find more savings,” Evenson said. “We welcome the opportunity to deliver services taxpayers expect at a price they can afford.”
Agency Secretary Dave Ross, who has been on the job less than a month, said the audit “provides a road map to improved efficiency and transparency at the DOT.” Ross said he’ll work to implement recommendations for improvement.
Ross replaced Mark Gottlieb, who resigned as secretary three weeks ago.
Gottlieb told the Assembly’s transportation committee in December that under the governor’s plan the percentage of Wisconsin roads in poor condition would double to 42 percent over the next 10 years, projects could be delayed for decades and incoming revenue wouldn’t keep up with inflation.