DOT Audit Hearing Gives No Easy Answers in Transportation Debate

There were no easy answers, but plenty of questions in the Wisconsin State Capitol on Tuesday during a hearing of the legislature’s Joint Audit Committee. At issue were the findings of a January audit of the state Department of Transportation’ state highway program and how best it could implement its recommendations going forward.

By the end of the three and a half hour hearing; few answers were given, with even more questions being asked of state auditors and state legislators of each others. What was clear was that Tuesday’s hearing would only be the start of a debate set to dominate the upcoming state budget. One in which state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) has pledged could last well into the summer or until October as state legislators wrangle over transportation spending.

But the audit and the hearing did itself provide a number of findings. For starters, the state DOT still has a lot of explaining to do; especially when it comes to transparency related to cost estimations of projects and contract bidding. Many legislators’ questions during the hearing focused on the audit’s eighth appendix. A section of the document where state auditors singled-out five projects across Wisconsin to explain how project costs ballooned by nearly $2 billion from their initial cost estimates.

Yet as the hearing continued, it quickly became clear that the way Wisconsin budgets for roads also needs to be looked at. state Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma), openly questioned whether the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee (JFC) had seen both parties asleep at the wheel for decades when it came to the oversight of roads project.

“When does the finance committee come to say, ‘You’ve spent $500 million more than we’ve expected on this project,” asked Vinehout. “You’ve made a decision to go from six lanes to eight lanes, or all these other things I’ve just mentioned, maybe that $500 million – or a portion of it – ought to come back to the legislature and ought to come back to the finance committee for us to make a decision?”

In a statement issued after the hearing, state Senator Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) commented that if the audit showed legislators anything, the last thing the state should be doing is seeking new sources of revenue for a state agency with little to no accountability.

“Today’s hearing revealed that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the problems at the DOT.  We must further investigate practices at DOT ranging from how they select projects for construction to ensuring they have a competitive bidding process. We should not begin discussing revenue increases until the DOT can prove it can be more transparent and accountable to the taxpayers of Wisconsin.”

The audit also found that from January 2006 to December 2015, 363 construction contracts were awarded after receiving only one bid on them.

At the hearing’s end, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee unanimously voted to introduce bipartisan legislation to make the audit’s recommendations the law with the intent of holding a hearing and further debate on that legislation scheduled for a later date. Whether this legislation becomes law before the next budget gets passed or inserted into the next budget remains to be seen.

In the meanwhile, state auditors and DOT Secretary Doug Ross will provide a status report on how far along they are in implementing the audit’s recommendations. That is scheduled to take place later this year on June 30; a time frame which land right in the middle of the debate over the state budget and millions in transportation projects.