Report finds DOT struggling to finish projects on time and under budget

The state Department of Transportation has increasing difficulty completing projects on time and under budget, needs to improve communication with environmental protection staff and lacks any systemic way to measure its goals, according to a new report from the General Assembly’s chief investigative panel.

But the Program Review and Investigations Committee report also concluded that the department has made some progress toward its primary mission of maintaining the transportation network, despite limitations in terms of both staffing and funding.

“Much of what drives the indicators (of successful work) is beyond the control of DOT or any single state agency,” program review staff wrote in a recent report to the committee, adding that the department’s overall efforts to fulfill its mission have produced “mixed” results.

The department required an average of 1,918 days, or 5.3 years, to complete the projects it wrapped up between 2001 and 2010, with just 37 percent of the work finished on schedule. Program review staff analyze projects undertaken by other states between 2001 and 2005 and found an average of 53 percent of the work finished on time.

In Connecticut over the past decade, the average transportation construction project exceeded its originally planned completion date by 223 days. Not surprisingly, the most expensive projects –  those costing more than $20 million – ran the latest.

The DOT does not have an automated project management system that can adequately track projects from design through delivery phases and frequently grants extensions, the report states. “If time equals money,” it added, “then the mere extension of a construction project is costing more than originally estimated.”

Program review staff also found that out of 793 projects completed over the past decade, 589, or 74 percent, ran over budget, with an average added cost of 23 percent. Over the 10 years analyzed, these overruns amounted to an extra $491.6 million.

The state normally prepares a 10 percent contingency fund for transportation projects, but the report found 333 projects, or 42 percent, ran more than 10 percent over budget.

Besides implementing a new project management system, program review staff also recommended that the DOT:

  • Set a goal of awarding construction contracts to the “lowest responsible bid” within the design engineer’s estimate.
  • Sharpen analysis of project design cost estimates.
  • And create an internal  “performance measurement results steering committee” with bureau managers to set and regularly assess new quality assurance standards.

The department and the union representing about 1,000 state DOT engineers, analysts and inspectors have clashed frequently over the past year about what the union argues is an over-reliance on private contractors.

Union spokesman Matt O’Connor said the report is “a step in the right direction” and shows that relying on private consultants for design work has weakened quality and driven up costs and project timetables.

Program review staff also concluded that more effective communication between transportation staff and the Department of Environmental Protection is needed to speed up permit reviews and overall project timetables.

“We know we need to have cooperative working relationships between the departments,” Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, co-chairwoman of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, said Thursday, adding the report likely would form the basis for reform legislation to be introduced in the regular 2011 legislative session, which begins Jan. 5.

DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick said Thursday that the department is reviewing the committee report and declined further comment.

The DOT has made some effort to reverse these trends since the program review study began earlier year, the report noted. Enhanced efforts to track projects and manage costs resulted in 69 percent of work completed under budget during the second-quarter of 2010.

The report also found that even though the DOT has 20 percent fewer employees than the 4,128-member workforce budgeted for the agency 20 years ago, Connecticut has continued to make progress in some key highway safety areas.

The annual highway fatality rate of 0.83 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled is well below the national average of 1.25 deaths. And the state average has dropped in recent years, down from 0.93 in 2006.

Program review staff also found the DOT, which has an annual budget of just over $530 million, “is impeded by a lack of up-to-date project management tools and technology.”

Mushinsky and another advocate of the DOT study, Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, said lawmakers realize the agency has been struggling for some time with insufficient staff and other resources.

But DeFronzo added that given the $3.67 billion deficit facing the state budget next fiscal year, the DOT and all state agencies can expect to continue to be challenged to improve without extra resources.

“The issue of staffing is going to be a tough one,” he said. “I think we’re all going to have to do with less for a while.”