PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A report commissioned by the Chafee administration — that almost didn’t see the light of day — catalogs many of the problems that have plagued the Rhode Island Department of Transportation for years, including a huge over-reliance on consultants.
According to the report, obtained by The Journal last week in response to a records request, the state DOT spends two to three times more on consultants than peer agencies in other states.
“As a percentage of the construction program, RIDOT’s consultant expenditures for 2010 to 2014 averaged 30.4 percent of the construction dollars spent,” according to the findings by Gordon Proctor & Associates.
That would equal close to $46 million of the DOT’s $150 million average annual construction tab. It is two to three times higher as a percentage than the amount spent in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and other states surveyed by Gordon Proctor as part of a study launched in 2014 under then-Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee.
Yet, “even with this higher level of expenditure, RIDOT has less reliable project development schedules than its peers,” the report says.
Among the other findings: the DOT has no “shelf”: “That is projects that have been designed, permitted and are ready to bid if additional funds become available. A shelf of projects is common in agencies with reliable project-development processes. RIDOT practices ‘just in time’ project development because its project-development process is geared toward emergencies and developing only projects that can be funded with certainty in the fiscal year.”
The DOT provided this report, dated July 24, 2015, and two others produced by Gordon Proctor & Associates to The Journal in response to a request for all records, findings and recommendations produced by this study into the condition of Rhode Island road’s and bridges, and the less-than-ideal way in which the state’s transportation agency operates.
The study was already under way when Governor Raimondo’s transportation director, Peter Alviti, sought to hire a different consultant, AECOM, at a cost of $340,000, to pursue many of the same management questions.
The AECOM hiring raised eyebrows from the start.
On February 20, top staff at the agency — including managing engineer David Fish, chief engineer Kazem Farhoumand (who has been on paid leave since mid-July with no explanation) and financial management administrator John Megrdichian — signed a $400,000 addendum to an existing AECOM bridge-inspection contract for work described only as: “Assignment X.”
As an addendum to a bridge-inspection contract, the DOT anticipated 80-percent federal reimbursement. DOT administrators ultimately decided to put the contract out to bid, for reasons that have never been fully explained.
AECOM won the contract in late-June, under terms where only state dollars would have been used. By then, the contract had been whittled down to $340,000.
But the company pulled out earlier this month after The Journal questioned why two different consultants were on the RIDOT payroll, studying operations at the agency at the center of Raimondo’s $1.1-biliion toll-financed bridge-repair proposal. The official explanation: AECOM pulled out, before it was paid anything on its management services contract, after being told it could not bid on any other RIDOT contracts while examining contracts, change-orders and other basics of how the RIDOT operates.
In the meantime, the third of the three reports that Gordon Proctor produced was headed for obscurity.
Titled: “RIDOT Project Development Analysis,” the first page of the draft that the DOT provided to The Journal carries this disclaimer:
“This report was produced by Gordon Proctor & Associates, which is solely responsible for its recommendations. This document has not [been] approved nor accepted by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. All findings are subject to review, amendment or change.”
The report delves, in some depth, into the way the DOT is organized that makes it nearly impossible to compare staffing levels to other states. Among the problems in making comparisons: “RIDOT staff work 35-hour weeks, which reduces their per-person hours by 13 percent compared to the peer states.”
A “head‐to‐head comparison of RIDOT project-development staffing to peer organizations is … [further] muddied by RIDOT’s unique practice of not having dedicated project managers who focus solely on developing projects. … Staff may be assigned to manage some projects but they also issue truck size and weight permits, process access-permits, meet with property owners and handle legislative enquiries.”
Among the recommendations, RIDOT should: “alter its management practices;” identify realistic two-year lists of projects; create a small “strike force” to handle emergencies — such as bridge problems that “arise frequently and churn their priorities;” and replace the agency’s in-house “project management portal,” which is “wholly unsuited for managing a complex, modern transportation program.”
While these draft documents are not public records, DOT spokesman Charles St. Martin said, “We feel it’s important to share those with you so you can see why we are so focused on tackling these challenges for Rhode Island. They get to the very heart of the many changes the administration is working on to build a better RIDOT,” and the “very foundation” of the toll-financed bridge-repair plan.
He said the new leadership has already adopted some of the recommendations: holding monthly project-status meetings, for example; assigning project managers to every project; adopting “a new, simplified project management system to replace its project management portal.”
But instead of the two-year plans, he said, “the new leadership at RIDOT directed staff to develop a 10-year plan with an associated dependable, predictable and dedicated funding source.”
Other moves: “The new RIDOT leadership has met with DEM and CRMC to streamline the permit and approval process. … A programming unit will be developed as part of the new reorganization of RIDOT. … Segregation of duties will be developed as part of the new reorganization of RIDOT.”
Beyond that, he said, the RIDOT is now requiring complete budgets for projects, from initial design to the last street light.
As of today, the state has paid Gordon Proctor & Associates $242,899 under a contract with a $750,000 cap.
In response to a Journal query in August, the DOT last week provided two other documents Gordon Proctor produced.
One, dated December 2014, is titled: “Investing in Rhode Island’s Future.” It spells out many of the talking points made by Raimondo since taking office in January: Despite the massive infusion of new dollars earmarked for roads in the 2014 state budget, additional money is needed.
“More than 46 percent of the state’s roads are rated in fair or worse condition, and 21 percent of the bridges are in poor condition. … Approximately 15 additional bridges fall into the poor category each year. … Yet at current funding levels, RIDOT can only rehabilitate or replace approximately 10 bridges per year,” the report says.
The second document, dated January 2015, says, in part, that the gas tax and fee increases called for in the state budget “could raise up to $551 million between 2016 and 2025,” but this is not enough to prevent further deterioration.