MADISON -- Wisconsin's new transportation secretary told lawmakers on Tuesday, February 21st that the state Department of Transportation overlooked a massive interchange project in Dane County last year, symbolic of cost overruns and mismanagement uncovered by a recent state audit.
Secretary Dave Ross, who took the position after his predecessor resigned in January, told lawmakers that he would change the culture at the agency. The audit showed 16 ongoing major projects had soared in cost from their original estimates, from $2.7 billion to $5.8 billion, and revealed that the Transportation department wasn't accounting for inflation in its cost estimates.
"We need to build back up DOT's confidence in your eyes so that we perform better on your behalf," Ross said.
Ross pledged to implement several recommendations from the audit, including changes to bidding practices and maintaining more records in the agency's central office.
The audit also uncovered the forgotten Dane County interchange project, which Ross discussed for the first time publicly on Tuesday.
The interchange is part of Interstate 39/90 roadwork that stretches from Madison to the Illinois border. The entire project was estimated to cost $715 million when it began in 2011 and had ballooned to $1.2 billion by last year, according to the audit.
Ross said that estimate, given to auditors last fall, left out $550 million planned for the interchange that connects U.S. 12/18, known as Madison's Beltline, to I-39/90.
"How is it, if we’re going to build confidence in you as an agency, and miss $550 million in a report?" Ross told lawmakers, blaming his predecessors for the mistake and pledging to "re-evaluate" the future of the interchange project.
Lawmakers on the Joint Audit Committee introduced a bill Tuesday that would require the Transportation department to provide more frequent and detailed reports of project costs.
"I appreciate your remarks today but, going forward here, the buck stops with you," state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, the committee's co-chair, told Ross.
State Auditor Joe Chrisman told lawmakers that the Transportation department's central office was not keeping track of skyrocketing project costs. Instead, Chrisman said auditors had to get that information from the agency's regional offices.
"One of the things that concerns us as auditors, and what you would expect from the department, would be a centrality of information so that DOT could authoritatively respond to your questions about why have costs changed," Chrisman said.
The audit comes as lawmakers debate whether to increase Wisconsin's road budget, and its findings provide talking points for both sides.
State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said that providing the DOT with more money now would be like giving his daughter a bigger allowance and watching her spend it on Starbucks.
"I just feel like it would be extremely inappropriate to give more money to an agency that cannot put a budget together properly," Kapenga said.
State Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the Legislature's powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said the audit proved that the state's road funding shortfall was worse than expected. The estimated shortfall of $1 billion relied on project cost projections from the Transportation department, which the audit showed were probably low.
Nygren, R-Marinette, and other top Assembly Republicans have said they are open to increasing the gas tax or vehicle registration fee. Gov. Scott Walker is opposed to both options, and has proposed a transportation budget that delays major projects and borrows $500 million to close the funding gap.
"Let’s be honest, what you’re talking about — prioritization means delays," Nygren told Ross on Tuesday.