Letter from Sen. Vinehout: Rough Road Ahead“The road was new a few years ago,” my neighbor told me. “Now it’s like a washboard. How does the state know the people are getting their money’s worth?”
By: Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, Pierce County Herald
“The road was new a few years ago,” my neighbor told me. “Now it’s like a washboard. How does the state know the people are getting their money’s worth?”
When I checked into the Buffalo County man’s complaint, I found a confusing labyrinth of finger pointing and obfuscation. Transportation officials shuttled me from one office to another.
“Those are paper records and they are all in another office,” I was told by one state employee.
“That road is under warrantee and we can’t fix it,” another told me.
This past year an audit shed light on the highway construction problem. Just recently the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) provided an update on road construction quality in its annual hotline review report.
LAB runs a Fraud, Waste and Abuse Hotline. Anyone can call 1-877-FRAUD-17 and anonymously report problems in state government. Just such a call led to an investigation of the road in my neighborhood – and probably a road in your neighborhood.
The audit focused on asphalt highway construction and inspection. The audit described a flawed process of quality control that inadequately oversees highway construction.
Wisconsin has a road “warrantee program” that shifts responsibility for pavement quality from construction engineers to the contractor. The contractor is not required to test the quality of materials and engineers do not perform tests of materials and pavement.
In exchange for this lack of oversight, contractors warrantee the project. They are then required to perform and pay for repairs if a DOT inspection determines the pavement does not meet performance standards.
The program has many problems. A glaring one is that projects were not inspected until after the warrantee expired, at least for every project whose warrantee expired in 2009.
Some circumstances void the warrantee. For example, if local workers repair the road, the warrantee is void. Warrantees are written so they expire November 1st, before the winter of the last year.
The state does not systematically review complete information about the warrantees. For example, auditors found employees doing oversight did not know the Marquette Interchange was under warrantee.
The audit showed there was a great deal of confusion about whether or not a contractor must pay for damage if the inspection reports were not received until after the warrantee expired. In several cases, including the one I mentioned above, state officials concluded that the circumstances were beyond the control of the contractor and they had no obligation to fix the road.
These circumstances seemed overly generous to contractors. In one instance the contractor was excused for inclement winter weather; in another for the highway’s underlying base. Officials were unable to document that required repairs had been made on at least six projects.
Pavement engineers reported 13 of 21 warranted projects in 2005 and 2006 show “distress that is inconsistent with pavement age.” For example, federal highway officials found a $5.5 million project on portions of Highway 53 in Chippewa County may last only14 years rather than the expected 20 years because of highway construction quality problems.
Federal highway officials also weighed in on the warrantee program. They expressed concern that state standards are not stringent enough to address problems. The feds mentioned DOT’s lack of supervision and inadequate record keeping. These problems make it difficult to determine why the pavement deteriorates quicker than expected. If there is not a clear reason for the deterioration it is hard to hold the company accountable for poor quality.
The federal officials were also concerned staffing shortages encouraged staff to place projects under the warrantee program when the state should instead conduct its own quality checks during construction.
The state conducted its own review of the warrantee program this past January and concluded project cost was the same for warranted and non-warranted projects. The state plans to continue the warrantee program.
The road near Alma is still posted “Rough Road Ahead.” The state has no plans to repair the pavement. But officials assure me they are monitoring the situation.