Friday, July 20, 2007

The DOT Behemoth

I'm a bit behind on this story, but The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson have asked for an audit of the Georgia Department of Transportation, and it's underway.

And this isn't just a numbers audit, it's a look at how the DOT does business. Read between the lines on these three requests, in particular:
We write to request...

3.) A complete performance audit of pre-construction processes at GDOT with a focus on the Office of Environment and Location. This performance audit should include benchmarking against analogous private and public sector transportation planning departments, and a recommendation on specific parts of the process that could be rorganized or privatized to bring projects online faster.

4.) A critique of the current project management structure at GDOT, with specific recommendations on changes that could be made to bring projects to completion more rapidly, including delegating more authority to the district engineer level, including supplementary contract changes. ...

5.) A value analysis of a selected sample of GDOT projects, with a focus on whether engineering standards are being set with a focus on achieving maximum value on a dollar for dollar basis.

Maybe you don't even have to read between the lines. Look how specific some of that is. It sounds like Cagle and Richardson have some very specific ideas about overhauling the way the DOT works.

Lindsay Holliday, local dentist, agitator, vigilant citizen and DOT player-hater, dubbed the audit "overdue." He and a handful of other members of CAUTION Macon (Citizens Against Unnecessary Thoroughfares In Our Neighborhoods) have, for years, been calling the DOT an old-fashioned dinosaur unwilling to embrace new ideas.

It will be interesting to see where all of this leads. The DOT is a huge department, with a budget upward of $2 billion a year and more than 6,000 employees.

Typically, I do not trust the man. And the Speaker of the House, the Lieutenant Governor, the DOT, those pretty much all qualify. One thing that's for sure: Transportation issues are going to be huge in the next few years, and the Cagle/Richardson (or Richardson/Cagle, if you prefer) letter says the audit recommendations will be used in crafting DOT legislation next year.

I've had plenty of dealings with the DOT as a reporter, sometimes finding them very helpful, sometimes finding myself amazed at their responses. Check out this excerpt from a story I wrote in 2002:
Mount Midway looms off U.S. 341 in Pulaski County, a testament to Georgia Department of Transportation policy.

It rises to a height of about 16 feet, banking slightly south like an unfinished interstate exit ramp.

Except no interstate runs nearby.

This 16-foot-high roadbed, made up of about 10,000 cubic yards of dirt, was built for a dirt road that connects U.S. 341 to Ga. 203. A handful of people live along the road. Locals say four or five cars a day traveled its dusty path before construction closed the road to through traffic.

Those same folks call the mound Mount Midway, because of its location midway between Eastman and Hawkinsville, just west of the Pulaski/Dodge county line.

They also call it a mistake.

Anyone in this rural part of Georgia can see there's no need for a 16-foot bank to connect that little country dirt road to the larger highways, they say.

But to the DOT, it's no error. Mount Midway simply represents a "field change" and the roadbed will be regraded down to about 6 feet.

"There was no error in the design," states a written DOT response to Telegraph questions about the project.

When a road under construction doesn't have a posted speed limit, DOT policy is to design it as if the limit is 55 mph, department spokeswoman Dorothy Daniel said Friday. That's what happened here. But the road plan now has been changed after design and construction engineers "noted that the height of the fill area was unsightly and would make maintenance very difficult."

Another DOT spokesperson went on to describe this type of "field change" as "common." I believe my response was along the lines of "You've got to be kidding me."

UPDATE: Back on the audit, DOT spokesman David Spear said the department has no problem with it.

"We're fine with it," he said. "They're exercising their authority of legislative oversight. ... A lot of that information, if not all of it, is open to the public."

As for the specific nature of the requests, Spear said that "A lot of it stems from the results of the efficiency study that the board just had conducted."

That study can be downloaded here.

Beyond that, there's a "general frustration" from legislators about how quickly projects get done, Spear said. That's been an issue for many years, and often times it turns out (or at least people say) that utility companies moving lines, or utility lines being found underground in unexpected places, leads to a lot of the delays.

Also, with so much growth in Georgia, and so many penny SPLOSTs for road construction, and only so many companies that do road work, a lot of companies bite off more than they can quickly chew, and projects take longer than expected. I know this has been a problem in Middle Georgia.

Beyond that, I've always liked this quote from Van Etheridge, who is a Moreland Altobelli engineer here in Macon with the county roads improvement program.

"I wouldn't want to go to the moon on one of them low bids," he said.


Macon Sense said...

Worst case: DOT decides to use Macon as an example of how to remake the landscape--they'd turn Forest Hill into a six-lane divided highway (with a ramp at Old Lundy Rd.), flatten the Indian Mounts, pave the Ocmulgee River completely and put in a tunnel under it for good measure, and the Fall Line Freeway would be a separate road from any of the above, requiring the demolition of Hay House, St. Joseph's Church, and Central City Park. Best case: every DOT project is put on hold until a fundamentally overhauled DOT is in place.

Lindsay Holliday said...

CAUTION Macon has been trying for months to uncover the GDOT links to Bibb Commissioner E Richardson. You can read their attorneys slippery answers online here:

Lindsay Holliday said...

"Cagle and Richardson want auditors to examine whether the state could save by privatizing the routine maintenance of things like roads, landscaping and traffic signals ." (from the AP article)

Privatization is one way of repaying wealthy donors by allowing them to become a licensed "middle man" who can skim profits.

Lazy politicians use privatization as an excuse to stop having to oversee the (now obsolete and laid off) state workers.

"Privatized maintenance of traffic lights " implies these politicians lack the vision to replace traffic lights with maintenance-free Roundabouts that also save fuel and have less accidents and injuries.

Robert said...

Hey, we in Alabama have the most incompetent, sluggish, backwards DOT around. Everyday we look at Tennessee and Georgia and see your problems and we're just shaking our heads as we mutter "why can't we have their DOT? We'd appreciate it compared to the hell we have at the moment."