Former DOT Secretary Mark Gottlieb attacks Gov. Walker for a problem of Gottlieb’s own making
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A government bureaucrat is upset that government isn’t spending enough on his department. I know, I know. Unheard of, right?
Well, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was surprised enough that former Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb is now attacking Governor Walker for this failure that it devoted a screaming headline and lengthy story to it.
Claiming that Walker “isn’t telling the truth about road projects and is taking a high-risk gamble that could see the state invest billions of dollars in obsolete highways,” Journal Sentinel reporter Patrick Marley devotes more than a thousand words to Gottlieb’s broadside without ever once bothering to mention a major reason Wisconsin can’t afford the sort of projects that Gottlieb thinks Walker should be approving: Mark Gottlieb’s own negligence in handling the DOT’s finances.
An audit of the DOT in early 2017 revealed that the agency underestimated the cost of 16 major highway projects that were at the time ongoing by a staggering total of $3.1 billion. Nineteen recently completed projects overran estimates by an additional $772.5 million.
Why? Because under Gottlieb and prior secretaries, the DOT failed to account for inflation and other various unexpected expenses.
Whether this shameful negligence was the result of oversight or an intentional effort at hiding the true costs of highway projects to get them approved is still open for debate, but it demonstrates in the clearest possible terms the ridiculousness of Gottlieb’s criticism of Walker.
The addition of lanes to highways when they are rebuilt adds millions to the total cost of projects and are not absolutely necessary, especially when the state faces such a substantial transportation budget shortfall—a shortfall of the DOT’s own making. How exactly could Walker’s administration (or any administration, for that matter) adequately budget the cost of highway projects when the actual costs were so out of line with initial and ongoing projections?
In fairness to Gottlieb, most of the projects listed in the DOT audit were started long before he took over the agency, but it is telling that under his stewardship, plans to streamline DOT operations were never implemented.
Why not? If Gottlieb were really so concerned about ensuring that the state would be able to afford adding lanes, why didn’t he seem to take any steps whatsoever to rein in cost overruns on existing projects?
As the audit found, he could have taken relatively simple steps to keep costs down, but chose not to. For instance, the “DOT potentially could have saved $44.7 million, or an average of $4.5 million per year, if it had received two bids on each of the 363 construction contracts that had actually received only one bid from January 2006 through December 2015.”
Naturally, these single-bid projects ran “6.7 percent more than the estimated amount that design engineers had determined.”
During that period, which included a full four years of Gottlieb’s tenure as secretary, simply opening projects up for competitive bidding would have saved taxpayers money, but the DOT refused to do so.
That decision—like decades’ worth of decisions by the DOT to push forward on projects regardless of how badly they were overrunning their budgets—has consequences, and a realistic consequence of fiscal mismanagement is a reluctance to blindly dump money into an agency that has proven itself time and again to be an unworthy steward of public funds.
Anyone who has ever been stuck in rush hour traffic on I-94 between the Zoo and Marquette Interchanges would undoubtedly love to see additional lanes, but at what cost? And how, exactly, would it be paid for? How could its costs even be remotely accurately estimated?
Walker wisely shelved an unnecessary expansion project when he saw that the DOT’s fiscal recklessness made any and all unnecessary transportation projects all but impossible to fund.
“There are some groups out there that want to spend billions and billions and billions of dollars on more, bigger, wider interchanges across the state,” he said. “I actually think we should be fixing and maintaining our infrastructure. I don’t know that we need bigger and better and broader right now when we have a changing transportation system.”
Gottlieb wrongly assumed that Walker was making a backhanded reference to outside groups influencing the DOT’s spending (they do) and a future in which people will drive less (they probably will), but in the wake of the damning audit, it seems clear that the Governor was actually making reference to the DOT itself and people within it—like Gottlieb—who want to simply hike Wisconsin’s gas tax to pay for ever-more extravagant road projects.
Walker’s reference to “a changing transportation system” more accurately referred to the revenue that the state could reasonably presume to take in from the gas tax in the future. As the public moves toward more fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles and electric cars gain market share each year, Walker is wisely deducing that Gottlieb’s tax-and-spend model for highway projects won’t be financially viable in the very near future.
Heck, it’s not financially viable now, and Gottlieb himself is a major reason why. His attacks on Walker now are nothing more than an attempt at whitewashing his own role in making impossible the projects he now attacks Walker for not pursuing.