February 21, 2017 2:20 PM, EST

Wisconsin Hearing Puts Focus on Sharply Critical State DOT Audit

Jimmy Emerson, DVM/Flickr

A recent audit that found the Wisconsin Department of Transportation underestimated highway projects by more than $3 billion raises questions about the agency's management, and of whether lawmakers must more closely oversee highway projects, state lawmakers said Feb. 21.

Lawmakers also hinted at the implications the audit could have for the state's next transportation budget during a Joint Legislative Audit panel hearing on the audit, prepared by the state's nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.

“Going and giving [DOT] more money would be absolutely the wrong thing to do at this point," said Sen. Chris Kapenga, (R-Delafield).

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The DOT also may need to make management changes, and lawmakers may need to exercise more oversight over changes to highway projects that increase costs, other lawmakers said during the hearing.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, (D-Alma) — citing the U.S. Interstate 39-90 expansion project in Dane and Rock counties — said the DOT is making costly changes to projects on its own authority. That means lawmakers may need to more closely oversee such changes, she said.

Sen. Alberta Darling, (R-River Hills), said issues raised in the audit largely are attributable to its decision-makers.

“Something really has to change in the management,” Darling said.

Released last month, the audit of the state's highway program found the DOT dramatically underestimated the cost of major highway projects over a period of decades by failing to account for inflation and other factors. Costs on 16 large highway projects currently under construction ballooned by more than $3 billion, or more than double what the department originally estimated. Those figures don't account for additional overruns on projects that have been completed.

The findings also say Wisconsin’s highway conditions are deteriorating and compare poorly to neighboring states.

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The audit includes a recommendation for DOT to report back to the legislative panel by June 30 on efforts to address the audit findings. The recommendations also call for DOT to provide more information at regular intervals about highway project costs, and to compile such information — including explanations for major cost increases — in a centralized location.

Sharply critical of planning and management at the DOT, the findings were the latest blow for an agency that just underwent a top-level management shakeup that included a new secretary, with Dave Ross replacing Mark Gottlieb.

They arrived as Gov. Scott Walker and lawmakers are ramping up a debate on the state’s next transportation budget, centering on the question of whether more revenue — likely from gas tax or fee increases — are needed.

The audit is a focal point for lawmakers who believe cost savings must be wrung from existing resources before lawmakers contemplate tax or fee hikes. That includes some staunchly conservative GOP lawmakers such as Kapenga, as well as Walker, whose budget proposal, released earlier this month, holds the line on taxes and fees.

Assembly Republican leaders, including Speaker Robin Vos, and legislative Democrats have signaled they're open to tax or fee hikes to resolve the state's long-term transportation-funding imbalance.

Sen. Rob Cowles, (R-Green Bay), who co-chairs the panel, said he expects the panel to watch the DOT closely in coming months to see how it responds to the issues and recommendations raised in the audit.

“This committee is going to have to have ongoing dialogue … back and forth with the agency to see: will they have done it?" Cowles said.

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