While Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature argue over whether a gas tax increase is needed to pay for road repair, one GOP lawmaker is making the case that millions of dollars can be saved at the State Department of Transportation. DOT secretary Mark Gottlieb was grilled by lawmakers on the Assembly Transportation committee on December 6 over Governor Scott Walker’s plan not to raise gas taxes or vehicle fees. Walker has instead proposed closing a two-year, one-billion-dollar budget gap through borrowing and project delays, a plan Gottlieb defended. But West Allis Republican State Representative Joe Sanfelippo said in an interview this week that tens of millions can be saved from DOT spending and that lawmakers should look there first before raising any taxes or fees.
Sanfelippo’s questions to Gottlieb on agency spending received sparse coverage in the media. But Sanfelippo has been examining DOT practices for years and he says cutting wasteful spending could save tens of millions of dollars. Sanfelippo says lawmakers don’t even know how much money they would need to raise in taxes and fees because no one is looking at the money the department has now and what they’re spending. He gives several examples:
- Sanfelippo says in two major projects in the Milwaukee area, the Zoo Interchange reconstruction and the Hoan Bridge, the DOT chose to use stainless steel rebar in the concrete, as opposed to the epoxy coated iron rebar that is commonly used. Sanfelippo says the stainless-steel rebar costs 250% more than the iron rebar. Sanfelippo says Gottlieb told him the intent was to have the bridge deck last as long as the bridge structure. But Sanfelippo says the stainless steel will long outlive the concrete structures. He says between those two projects the difference was $28 million dollars for an item Sanfelippo argues was unnecessary. Sanfelippo says he’s continuing to investigate to determine how many times the stainless-steel rebar has been used in projects around the state.
- New traffic signals that the DOT claims are safer but Sanfelippo is dubious. He says the DOT is replacing the long-used “trombone arm” style traffic lights with large, costlier “monotubes.” Sanfelippo says the DOT spent 57.5 million dollars more in the past five years on 1,100 of the monotube units than would have been needed for the traditional traffic lights. Sanfelippo says the DOT’s claims that the new design is safer go no further than claiming “studies show…” Sanfelippo says he’s asked to see those studies but has never been provided specifics.
- Purchasing cards: Sanfelippo says hundreds of DOT employees have access to “purchasing cards,” which he describes as essentially being credit cards. Sanfelippo says employees can use the cards to make purchases that don’t go through the normal procurement process. Sanfelippo says tens of millions of dollars are being spent by employees using these cards with “no checks and balances. “There are individuals on this list spending three hundred thousand, four hundred thousand, five hundred thousand dollars annually on these purchasing cards.” Sanfelippo says when the cards were developed in the 1990’s they were intended for “small purchases.” He asks: “how can you have $500,000 a year, in small purchases, for just one year. Sanfelippo stresses that he is not alleging wrongdoing. But he wonders what auditing procedures are in place to “watch all this money going out the door” and to make sure it’s being used properly.
Sanfelippo says that the DOT, in effect, is spending money on top of the line items and then “at the same time they’re telling us they’re broke and they can’t afford to continue their road construction projects that we need done, it just doesn’t make sense.” Further, he believes the DOT needs to account for the money spent on the purchasing cards before any revue increases are approved by lawmakers. And Sanfelippo says these items are the tip of the iceberg, while already totaling well into the tens of millions of dollars.
And Sanfelippo says these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. “We’re not talking nickels and dimes here. Every one of these items are millions and millions of dollars.” Sanfelippo says he has binders full of other examples. And Sanfelippo says the legislature needs to examine those costs before starting any discussion on revenue increases.