For the last eighteen months RightWisconsin has published dozens of posts involving the Wisconsin’s transportation finance debate. Here and in other forums that debate has featured varied opinions from conservative legislators, the governor, and those who closely follow state government.

I have been fortunate to present my views using the RightWisconsin platform. Several contributors have differed with my assessment, most notably the John J. MacIver Institute and Senator Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville.

A recurring theme advanced by MacIver, Stroebel, and others involves alleged mismanagement and waste by Governor Scott Walker’s Department of Transportation.

The dubious validity of that narrative most recently was illustrated in a MacIver “analysis” that purportedly “found nearly $2 billion in wasteful Wisconsin [transportation] projects and practices.”  

An organization aspiring to status as a credible “think tank” would accompany such an “analysis” with a description of its authors’ credentials, the methods they used, and their various sources of information.  After all, finding $2 billion in “wasteful projects and practices” would entail systematic research. The researchers would have experience in or knowledge of the field; in this instance, that might include expertise in public finance, transportation planning, or capital projects.

MacIver conspicuously omits any information on the three authors’ credentials. As for methodology, it offers only this:  “The MacIver Institute has dug into the numbers, taken a deeper dive into DOT projects that are at the very least questionable, if not an outright waste of taxpayer money, and administrative failures that have added substantial and unnecessary costs.”

The report itself is mainly a hodgepodge of projects of which the authors disapprove.  

In one instance, the authors categorize as “waste” a $650 million bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota that “seems necessary” but in the authors’ view was “over-engineered.”  

The authors’ qualifications extend beyond the ability to evaluate bridge design and include an apparent expertise in materials. They assert WIDOT wasted $30 million by using a ”stainless steel rebar instead of an epoxy coated rebar. Using the stainless steel rebar cost far more and does not offer the same high life expectancy as the epoxy coated rebar.”

Two other examples of “waste” involving potential savings in areas not permitted by current law. The authors thus allege untold millions could be saved by elimination of prevailing wage laws and use of alternative means of designing and bidding highway work. Walker and WIDOT are thus held to account for not following practices that the statutes prohibit.

In yet another example of “waste” MacIver criticizes the $143 million estimated cost of a highway project that has never been approved and has not been built. It’s an idea only, and one that likely will never be realized. Including it in an “analysis” of waste simply pads the numbers in a laughable way. Why not  also include the cost of the never-built high-speed rail line that some in WIDOT surely favored.

MacIver chalks up another $191 million in “waste” to a Legislative Audit Bureau report earlier this year. Over a six-year period, when the state highway program totaled $12 billion, the audit bureau identified areas where WIDOT failed to meet is own performance goals. Potential savings equalled less than two per cent of program spending. More importantly, the potential savings arose from WIDOT’s own effort to set goals, measure outcomes, and identify shortcomings.  To MacIver this is “waste.”

MacIver’s selective reliance on the audit report omits this key audit finding:

DOT generally had effective oversight of the processes for soliciting bids and awarding construction contracts and took steps to control construction costs, but it could take additional steps.

MacIver fails to address, much less attempt to rebut, a December 2016 transportation department report that identified $1.5 billion in one-time and ongoing savings from improved management and design of highway projects.  

Far from being a “deep dive” into the management of highway projects under Walker and former WIDOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb, the MacIver “analysis” is an ill-informed amalgam of unsupported and misleading claims. It does a disservice to the honorable gentleman after whom the institute has chosen to name itself.


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