Danger Ahead

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.

It cost a woman her life. Nintzel, the ADOT spokesman, says his agency would love to hire more workers. But it has a difficult time competing with private sector salaries, and a tough time getting legislative authorization to add positions.

Last year, ADOT received permission to hire 25 more workers for the intermodal division, six of them inspectors. "We concur with the auditor general's findings," Nintzel says. "But this is not a simple challenge to solve."

Critics of the agency say it must do more.

Suzanne Dallimore is a Tempe lawyer who worked, for a time, on a case against ADOT bid-rigging that I wrote about last year. (The suit has since been dropped.) A former assistant attorney general under Grant Woods, Dallimore is famously dogged when it comes to pursuing public corruption. She's also one of those rare attorneys whose mind is engaged by the minutiae of contract law.

I called her last week to see what she thought about the Loop 202 collapse. And while Dallimore stressed that she doesn't know the details of that particular case, much less who's to blame, she said that problems like those highlighted in the auditor general's report can lead to serious problems down the road.

"Sooner or later, if no one is minding the store, someone will cheat," she tells me. "There's simply too much money to be made cheating."

And Dallimore is convinced that there are serious problems with using private contractors for inspections.

"If ADOT does not have internal inspectors on the job, people who have no god but the taxpayers, we have conflicts of interest. And when there are conflicts of interest, the inspectors might choose to look the other way," she says. "If you don't have people whose entire loyalty is to the public, inevitably, the work suffers."

The problem is, there's a huge lobby agitating for new roads to be built. The engineering and design firms want the work. The home-builders want the added lanes. We, the people, want the quick commute.

It's only when something like the tragedy in Minneapolis happens that a boring word like "maintenance" becomes part of the public conversation.

Or, for that matter, "inspections."

But it's become all too clear in the past two weeks that we're idiots if we don't start paying better attention to this stuff. No one was hurt in Mesa last week, but we can't count on being that lucky next time.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske