No Accountability for State DOTs on Highway Projects

Complete a project on-time and on-budget. Or blow deadlines, run into setback after costly setback, only to return to the funding source with outstretched hands.

Louisiana's $94 million Interstate 49 extension went $9 million over budget. Photo: ##http://www.marshfieldnewsherald.com/article/20111211/CWS0101/312110038/Little-oversight-40B-federal-highway-construction-spending##Marshfield News Herald##

In the view of the Federal Highway Administration, it makes little difference. Each year this agency hands out roughly $40 billion in highway money based on federal formulas to State DOTs and then, it effectively steps aside — unless additional funding is requested.

Although the federal government provides almost 80 percent of the funding for highway projects across the country, a vast majority are subject to little to no federal oversight, according to an analysis by Gannett News. And that leads to a lot of waste.

While even the most mundane transit projects like Troy, Michigan’s $8.5 million Amtrak station undergo intense scrutiny by so-called fiscal watchdogs like Mayor Janice Daniels, the classic money-waster — the old, over-budget highway-to-nowhere projects — almost always escapes even the most superficial level of quality assurance.

More than half of federally funded highway projects run over budget, and 45 percent are late, the analysis shows. And whether a state is a consistent top performer or a virtual money pit, the Federal Highway Administration lacks the authority to impose best practices.

FHWA has expanded scrutiny for major projects — those that cost more than $500 million. But this year, just 87 of 136,000 FHWA-funded projects fell into that category.

Cited in the article is an analysis by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials finding that State DOT performance varies wildly, from some budget-faithful all stars like California, Georgia and Texas — that complete 85 percent of projects on target — to an unidentified state agency bringing up the rear at 13 percent.

Here are some of federally financed fiascoes cited by Gannett that have gone completely unpenalized:

• The reconstruction of Westchester County, New York’s Interstate 287 is more than two years behind schedule and $78 million, or 14 percent, over budget. This project has so far has cost taxpayers $621 million, more than $72 million per mile.

• The state of Louisiana’s 36-mile Interstate 49 extension from Shreveport to the Arkansas border was completed for $96 million — 9 percent over budget. The highway abruptly ends at the Arkansas line with no connector planned until at least late 2014.

• Ohio’s US 30 was completed nearly a year late and $13 million — or 13 percent — over budget. The day before groundbreaking, $700,000 was added to the contract because the cost of replacing any wetlands destroyed during construction wasn’t included.

Underscoring the lack of federal oversight is the unfortunate reality that most states do little performance analysis themselves. A report last year by the Government Accountability Office found that 30 states said political support was a key variable in selecting projects. Only 11 states said the same about economic analysis.

AASHTO President Kirk Steudle, also Michigan’s Transportation Director, said he and his fellow state transportation officials oppose greater federal oversight of highway projects out of concern about a “national one-size-fits-all measurement that doesn’t fit all.” Meanwhile, Kenneth Mead, who was inspector general for the U.S. Transportation Department from 1997 to 2006, has been one of the biggest advocates for reform.

“They’re talking about a new surface authorization, and we hear jobs, jobs, jobs,” he said. “But I think there ought to be discipline to this.”

Meanwhile, House Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman John Duncan (R-TN) told Gannett reporters he is interested in adding performance measures to the transportation bill currently in progress.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Northeast Ohio to State DOT: Road Expansions Getting Out of Hand

|
If you could point to one aspect of American transportation policy that’s more disastrous than all the others, expanding highways and roads to the point of absurdity is probably it. In northeast Ohio, cities like Cleveland and Akron were hollowed out by highway building, but the state DOT still privileges road expansion instead of maintenance or investment in transit, […]

Is the ‘Road Gang’ Losing Power in Washington?

|
That is the thesis posited in a new investigation from the Center for Public Integrity, which sent a reporter to sprawl-saturated South Florida to examine how much of a return the transportation construction industry is getting on its multi-million-dollar contributions to congressional campaigns. In a time of sluggish economic recovery, when federal dollars can make […]

Obama’s New Transportation Budget: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

|
With federal transportation funding on track to run dry by May 31, Washington lawmakers are gearing up again to reset national transportation policy… or, if that doesn’t work out, to limp along indefinitely under the status quo. Today President Obama unveiled his opening bid in this process. The $478-billion, six-year plan from the White House includes many […]

Federal Transportation Law Expired Over the Weekend: What’s Next?

|
A new month begins today without rules in place to govern federal transportation programs, thanks to an objection by Sen. Jim Bunning (R-KY) to quick approval of a short-term extension of existing law. The Natchez Trace Parkway, where trail construction is set to stall today thanks to inaction on federal transport law. (Photo: TheFunTimesGuide.com) The […]