In response to the recent CT Mirror report  “Transportation Infrastructure could be key to inclusive economic recovery, but investment has languished” on November 30, I would like to add to Keith Phanuef’s piece with suggestions on how to improve our transportation infrastructure in a fiscally responsible way.

The article cites a decade-long lack of transportation spending, but does not address a key piece of the equation, the Department of Transportation (DOT) wastes over $100 million annually through outsourcing key engineering services. Recent cost analyses, that the DOT must submit annually by statute, indicate wasteful spending of between 58 to 62% when the Department outsources construction inspection and engineering design services. For Fiscal Years 2016, 2017, and 2018, the state could have saved $325 million had this critical work been performed by state employees.

So why does the state continue to waste this much when reports and audits show it can be done more cost effectively with in-house personnel? Politics. 

A political shell game takes place because some politicians love to show a reduction of state employees, in lieu of any actual savings. The number of state employees and the state budget’s personnel line item receive the most scrutiny every budget cycle. But when quasi-state employees hired by private companies perform the same work, the public does not have access to the number of employees being hired. In addition, the tax dollars spent by outsourcing fall under the operating expenses budget line item, which is hardly ever scrutinized.

Also to blame is the hiring process Connecticut uses for state employees. The Department of Transportation is not in charge of hiring engineers but instead uses a centralized hiring dinosaur called Department of Administrative Services (DAS). Even as the DOT performs strategic planning for the next five years, they have no authority or control of how many employees they can hire at the department and are subject to the whims of politicians and DAS.

One of the critical services our engineers provide is oversight and inspection of the construction of our roads and bridges.  Our priorities are keeping the roads safe and contractors honest.  When we do not have enough staff to perform these duties, our work is outsourced to high priced, for-profit companies, many of which are not even based in Connecticut, often taking jobs away from our residents.   Having a no-bid contractor oversee a low-bid contractor is like having the fox guard the henhouse.  When these construction contracts run over their allotted contract time, these private consulting engineers are rewarded with their own contract extensions, meaning more cost to taxpayers.

 With changes coming to the state employee’s pension plan looming in July, 2022, you would expect the state to be staffing up in order to retain qualified lower-costing state engineers ahead of the “silver tsunami.” Instead, it is business as usual in Connecticut. The position count of DOT engineers has not changed and while some hiring of new employees has taken place, it is not nearly enough to counter the expected retirements. 

It appears the politicians in control are quite content with doubling down on their addiction to outsourcing, at the cost of the Connecticut taxpayers.

Travis Woodward, P.E. is a Project Engineer for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. He also P4 Council President at CSEA SEIU Local 2001.

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