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 improve its project management.
“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 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 logs and 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.
Altogether, the project, which was 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.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen said she was still reading the audit, but she thought the investigation showed Washington should move toward more private-sector design for projects so that contractors would be responsible for cost overruns instead of the state.
“I was pretty appalled,” she said.
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. The state portion of the project was funded with a 2003 gas tax and existing WSDOT money.
Hammond said the WSDOT had put policy changes in place 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, such as wetlands, where contractors cannot put debris or equipment.
Hammond said she did not think any additional changes were necessary following the release of the audit.
“We had to transform how we did environmental compliance in the agency because of that project, but we did it. We did it back then, and we learned a lot,” she said.
Mindy Chambers, spokeswoman for the auditor’s office said the WSDOT’s 2004 report focused on environmental permitting issues, while the auditor’s report took a slightly different approach, looking at change orders and other factors as well.