I-39/90 project could face changes following DOT audit

$550 million cost not included in estimates
I-39/90 project could face changes following DOT audit

The new secretary of the state Department of Transportation is pledging changes at the agency, and in a major highway project in Dane County.

DOT Secretary Dave Ross testified at the Joint Audit Committee hearing Tuesday, responding to a critical audit.

“I’m here to reiterate what I said in response to the audit, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation will implement all and I emphasize all of the recommendations contained in this report,” Ross said.

State auditors told lawmakers at the hearing that a major issue for the DOT was that project costs rose sharply after they were approved.

“DOT’s cost estimates at enumeration were incomplete, in part, because the cost estimates didn’t take into account that inflation would increase expenditures over time,” auditor Dean Swenson said.

But Ross told lawmakers that in the case of the I-39/90 project, the entire cost of the interchange with Highway 12/18 or the Beltline was not included. While costs are still being evaluated, Ross said it could cost upward of $550 million.

“I reported this number with the Feb. 1 transportation projects commission report but I do not accept it,” Ross said. “We can do much better if we live by our priorities and ask the right questions. We will re-evaluate this project and report a cost that meets Wisconsin’s needs without taking from the greater needs in other places.”

It’s unclear what that will mean to the project and whether it will still be allowed to finish on time in 2021.

Lawmakers seemed to be concerned with that project, as well as the cost overruns.

“My takeaway is this is a management issue,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.

She proposed bringing in an outside consultant to look at management structures within the agency.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said she thought the DOT should be required to report back when costs for projects had increased.

“Maybe Rep. John Nygren and the finance committee and Sen. Darling want to spend that money on something else,” Vinehout said. “I mean, God bless Janesville, but my constituents say to me, ‘Why do we need eight lanes in Janesville?'”

Ross said the look at the interstate project would be part of a full implementation of the audit recommendations.

“We must work to restore the public’s faith and trust in our ability to manage resources, deliver a safe and effective and efficient program,” Ross said.

The Audit Committee introduced a measure Tuesday at the conclusion of the hearing requiring DOT to account for inflation in its cost estimates for highway projects.

The bill would require the DOT to include all costs associated with the project, including inflation, when making an estimate for approval by the Transportation Projects Commission.

The DOT would also be required to report annually to the Legislature and explain any changes in initial cost estimates and whether projects are still on time.