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Audit finds state Transportation Department grossly mismanaged taxpayer funds

Post by Katie Schmidt on Jan. 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
January 18, 2011 2:32 pm

State Transportation Department mismanagement caused a “gross waste of public funds” in a road widening project on State Route 18 near Maple Valley, according to an audit released Tuesday.

The project, which was completed in 2007, suffered from design mistakes, payroll mix-ups and environmental violations, leading to $42.5 million in cost overruns and pledges on the part of Transportation Department officials to manage things differently.

“This was a case where we fully recognized that we had problems with the project,” said Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond of the auditor’s investigation into the project. “This wasn’t new news for us.”

Hammond said the department completed its own investigation of the State Route 18 project in 2004, the same year that the Army Corps of Engineers shut down work in the area because the contractor had been stockpiling debris in the surrounding wetlands.

Jeff Carpenter, a WSDOT construction engineer, said the 2004 investigation did not include reporting on cost overruns because the project was not finished at that point. He said information on the cost of the project was included in the department’s quarterly and annual reports.

The audit came about because of a whistleblower report, submitted under the state’s Whistleblower Act, about mismanagement by the WSDOT during the project.

All together, the project, bid at $55.9 million, cost taxpayers $98.4 million. Change orders, most of which resulted from design errors and environmental violations, cost $16.4 million and the department was fined over $180,000 for breaking environmental rules, including the Clean Water Act.

Renting storage space for debris and hiring environmental consultants in response to these environmental violations added more costs.

The audit comes as the Transportation Department faces a $272 million shortfall over the next two years and will probably lay off about 800 full-time staff by 2015, according to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal.

According to the report, $45 million for the project came from federal funds and $53.5 million came from the state. Hammond said the project was funded with a 2003 gas tax.

She said the Transportation Department had put in place policy changes after its 2004 investigation to ensure that similar problems do not happen again. The department changed its permit compliance monitoring program, added training for project inspectors and created specifications to designate sensitive areas where contractors cannot put debris or equipment.

According to the report, extra costs, design changes and fines resulted from storing wood and logs in wetland areas, surveying the site inaccurately and failing to design a stormwater treatment system that complied with Ecology Department standards.

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