Poor marks for DOT

You probably missed it in the run-up to Christmas, but a new legislative report has again given poor grades to the state Department of Transportation. This report from the General Assembly’s chief investigative panel was released, strangely, on Dec. 23, a date that all but guaranteed it would get no news coverage.

In summary, the report said the transportation department is late in finishing its work, especially its most expensive undertakings. On average, the agency took 5.3 years to finish big projects, with only 37% of work finished on time (think Interstate 95). That compares with others states’ 57% on-time completions.

Not only were the projects late, 74% of them were over budget with an average added cost of 23%. Over the decade of work studied, that added up to an additional half-billion of your tax dollars.

Part of the problem is that the transportation department has no automated project management system to track these multi-million dollar projects. In other words, nobody is keeping score. Nor, in my view, does there seem to be any accountability for mistakes. In the private sector a batting record this dismal would cause heads to roll.

Of course, there are fewer “heads” at the DOT to roll: the agency today has 20% less staff than in 1990. Past budget cuts have seen the most experienced engineers accept buyouts, taking their expertise with them as they exited the agency. And it’s only going to get worse: 29% of transportation department engineers are older than 50 and are edging toward the door.

Outsourcing work to consultants doesn’t seem the answer, as their work was slower and more expensive than jobs done in-house by the civil servants.

On the plus side, progress has been made in highway safety. Connecticut’s annual highway fatality rate of 0.83 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled ranks well below the U.S. average of 1.25 deaths.

Among possible explanations for this good news are that 8.8% of all Connecticut roads are “over capacity” and only 41% of our highways are ranked as giving a “good” ride. Those factors could slow you down and keep roads safer.

Even federal stimulus money hasn’t been spent all that well. The long overdue work repairing our rail stations has been uncoordinated and, in my view, inept. In April the overhead canopies at several rail stations were removed, leaving passengers still standing unprotected from rain and snow seven months later.

The transportation department says the canopies can’t be replaced until overhead caternary wires are replaced on an opposite track. But they don’t hesitate to plaster these and other ARRA job sites with hundreds of thousands of dollars in signs proclaiming their good works. At least the sign makers got jobs if not the roof-installers.

While the legislative report does give the DOT points for increased “transparency” in its dealings with the public, the recently announced delay (again) in the delivery and testing of the new M8 rail cars stands in contradiction to that claim.

More candor and communication by the agency on this crucial infrastructure investment could have gone a long way to lessening the cynicism and distrust most have of this agency.

And we still have no idea who our next governor will chose as commissioner of the DOT. Who could possibly want the job?

 

Jim Cameron is chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council and a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area, but the opinions expressed here are his own. You may reach him at [email protected] or trainweb.org/ct.

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