Danger Ahead

Governor Napolitano needs to go a lot further than just inspecting our bridges

After the tragic highway collapse in Minneapolis two weeks ago, Governor Janet Napolitano assigned the Arizona Department of Transportation to inspect every highway bridge in Arizona. Of course, there was no real worry, she said, but she wanted to make an "extra effort" to ensure our safety.

Exactly seven days later, a highway span already subject to ADOT's scrutiny collapsed. Last Wednesday, 468 tons of the Loop 202 crashed to the ground in Mesa — on a construction site ADOT had supposedly inspected in the past 24 hours.

Makes you wonder how much credence to give to Governor Napolitano's upcoming "extra effort," eh?

The problem is, the ADOT inspection process is deeply flawed, chiefly because the agency has been using private consultants to handle many inspections. (Think: foxes being paid to watch the henhouse.) A lengthy report from the state auditor general spells out a host of flaws with ADOT's inspection process even beyond this privatization: Inspectors don't keep accurate paperwork. They also don't have the experience, or confidence, to tell construction firms what to do.

The bigger picture is that ADOT has been one screwed-up agency for a long time. And I, for one, am less convinced that we need to sic ADOT's inspectors on our state's infrastructure than I am convinced that we should sic outside inspectors on the agency.

ADOT spokesman Doug Nintzel notes that the feds give the state's infrastructure high marks, and it's true. Our roads are newer, and smoother, than in many parts of the country.

But the fact remains that ADOT has a history of, at minimum, rogue employees who'd rather help their friends in the business than ensure that the most qualified firms get state-financed construction contracts ("Friends at Work," June 1, 2006). The firms that get the gigs, in many cases, are firms that hire well-connected ex-ADOT employees. In other cases, the winning firms have bought baseball tickets for staffers — or played golf with them, or hired their kids. You get the idea.

ADOT has such a culture of corruption that this sort of stuff is considered normal. When the agency's auditors were asked to look at the gifts received by one staffer, a guy in a position to help select engineering firms, the ADOT auditors didn't even bother tallying the goods the staffer had accepted before pronouncing him clean.

Here's another shocking case: A firm vying for a freeway-design contract approached an ADOT employee, a woman who just happened to sit on the selection panel handing out the work. Not exactly subtle, they approached her during the selection process and said they wanted to talk about job possibilities at their firm.

Unbelievably, ADOT urged the staffer to stay on the panel. (See "Roadkill," June 22, 2006.) No foul, one supervisor told her: "It appears they are only interested in hiring you."

You have to wonder what ADOT would have said if the firm had offered a paper bag of cash: "Hey, don't worry. It appears they are only trying to pay you off."

But let me get back to inspections. It's not only that connected firms are getting ADOT work instead of those that are best qualified. Once they've gotten the job, there's nobody around to hold them accountable.

Here's a horrifying statistic: In 1996, the agency's Intermodal Transportation Division, which supervises design, construction, and maintenance of the state's roadways, had 2,732 full-time employees.

Ten years later, despite unbelievable growth in the state, dozens of major projects, and thousands of additional miles of roadway, the division actually has 514 fewer people.

That's not because the agency's budget has dropped. Far from it. We're spending more on roads than ever.

ADOT is simply using outside consultants to do the job: design work, construction management, and, of course, inspections.

These consultants cost more. They also have significantly less accountability.

As the state's auditor general reported last summer as part of a performance audit, ADOT's payments to consultants increased a staggering 424 percent in a 10-year period, even with inflation factored in. That's a $93 million increase.

And it's not just about the money, believe me. I'd be fine with that expense if it meant all our roads and bridges were safe. But that's not the case. "According to state and national reports, use of consultants by state transportation agencies may have other risks besides increased project costs," the auditor general concluded. In fact, transportation agencies in other states recommend limiting the work that gets farmed out "in order to retain in-house expertise and the ability to review consultants' work . . ."

According to the report, ADOT could use more of both. The auditor general specifically found that inspectors are too inexperienced to exert their will over construction crews. They also failed to sufficiently document their results, and their standards aren't applied consistently.

Not to mention this frightening conclusion: "Follow-up on important deficiencies is lacking."

You think this kind of stuff has no consequences? I don't think I have to remind you about what happened when they used the wrong bolts in Minnesota. Or bring up Boston's Big Dig.

There, a construction firm used the wrong epoxy. It was a mistake, or perhaps a shortcut, that saved someone a few bucks — a mistake someone might have caught, but didn't catch during inspections.

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2 comments
Nevadape
Nevadape

For the poor souls lost in the Minnesota bridge collapse, I hope their loss of life will help get infrastructure maint. and replacement funding priorities a fresh look.

We, as a society love new things at the expense of the old. A prime example is tucked away in the northwest corner of Arizona. The Hoover Dam Bypass is a project that has become a complete boondoggle. There are renowned Civil Engineers saying a cast-in-place arch cannot be constructed at this site with the methods utilized. To date FHWA, ADOT and NDOT have done everything to prove it can't be built.....And yet the press gives them a free pass. Discovery Channel has hour long shows (failing to point out the cranes blew over in a 55 mph puff of wind)about what an amazing engineering monument the project is. How can a project schedule slip more than 3 years and still be within budget? Interesting fact: Had the initial construction of Hoover Dam started on the same day as the bridge project, the dam would have been completed this month. What other similar projects have used the same construction techniques successfully? NDOT used to say the Galena Creek Bridge near Carson City. Turns out they are filling the canyon with fill to build the bridge.

FHWA Project personnel have no business running a project of this magnitude. They're really good folks, but the only thing they've done professionally is designed hiking trails to porta potties in National Parks.

Back to the point, DOT's / FHWA like new Projects, such as Hoover Dam Bypass for $240 million to facilitate 17,000 cars a day( a tear in a salty sea by urban traffic standards) rather than $240 million refurbishing existing structures such as the Minnesota bridge, or the Loop 101 bridges with 100,000+ cars a day.

hal
hal

If Dallimore is so dogged, why did the bid rigging case get dropped?

Why hire outside designers,inspector,etc? Does that somehow hide the cost in the state budget?

 
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