Raimondo seeks $1B in savings from RIDOT overhaul

Governor says 'dysfunctional' agency needs changes even if truck toll proposal fails

(WPRI: Brian Yocono/WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo has embarked on what her office calls the largest reorganization of the R.I. Department of Transportation in its history, with the goal of saving taxpayers more than $1 billion over the next decade.

Few of the changes being made at RIDOT – which range from designating project managers to managing the agency’s cash on hand better – are particularly sexy. But in Raimondo’s view, they amount to a wholesale transformation in the way RIDOT does business, one that should significantly improve the dismal condition of the state’s roads and bridges over time.

“I think it’s fair to say the Department of Transportation which I inherited was in many ways dysfunctional,” Raimondo told reporters Wednesday. “There was a lack of accountability and they weren’t using obvious best practices, and I’ve decided it’s time to change the way we do business at DOT. It’s time we fix it.”

The push to reorganize RIDOT comes as Raimondo is still trying to get House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to pass some version of RhodeWorks, her proposal to fund bridge repairs with new truck tolls. Mattiello has lately lowered the odds of the House returning for a special session to take up the idea, which already passed the Senate.

Raimondo reasserted her support for RhodeWorks on Wednesday, saying Rhode Island needs a more “sustainable funding stream” to pay for road and bridge repairs. “We need one, whether it’s the plan I proposed or an alternative plan,” she said. “The legislature needs to act to get us a funding stream if we’re going to be less reliant on federal money.”

“I do think something will get done,” she added. “If a bridge collapsed tomorrow, that would fly through the General Assembly. But it shouldn’t take someone getting hurt.”

Mattiello quickly shot back through a spokesman: “If a bridge collapsed in Rhode Island, the House would still conduct its due diligence before rushing into a plan to fix it,” he said.

The speaker said he’s waiting for Raimondo to release a pending economic-impact analysis of the toll proposal “before proceeding further to address the need to repair our roads and bridges.” Raimondo said the study should be out early next week.

Yet Raimondo and RIDOT Director Peter Alviti emphasized that they see the management changes at RIDOT as necessary regardless of whether RhodeWorks passes. And they said they are putting together two versions of a new 10-year plan for RIDOT projects: a Plan A with the additional funding from RhodeWorks and a Plan B without it.

“That’s my job,” Raimondo said. “Right now I don’t have the funding.” But she insisted, “Plan B is not a good plan.” Both plans will be presented to the State Planning Council as Rhode Island’s new Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan later this fall.

While Alviti argued that the cost of getting Rhode Island’s transportation network into better condition will be significantly more expensive without the funding boost from RhodeWorks, he said, “What we’re really here to talk about today is the transformation of DOT … which needs to happen regardless of whether we do Plan A or Plan B.”

Raimondo and Alviti both suggested the changes they’re made to RIDOT’s bureaucracy over the last six months are already bearing fruit. “It’s a much better organization now,” she said.

As one example, they said a review of RIDOT’s accounts found roughly $40 million of the agency’s current cash reserves had been set aside to pay for long-term projects even though the money won’t actually be needed for a number of years. That cash has now been redeployed to fund projects immediately rather than sitting idle.

As another example, they said a number of unfilled but funded administrative positions are being left empty in order to hire 40 new maintenance workers. They cited statistics showing the number of RIDOT maintenance workers has dropped by more than half since 1980. They also said nearly a half-dozen RIDOT employees have been dismissed – or retired in lieu of being dismissed – for failing at their jobs.

Raimondo described three major problems at RIDOT that her team – led by Alviti, a former Laborers union official and Cranston DPW director – is trying to change.

The first, she said, is a lack of accountability at the agency. According to Raimondo and Alviti, individual RIDOT projects do not have individual project managers, so no one is responsible for a project from start to finish. Alviti said putting in place a project management structure should save money over time and make RIDOT more efficient, while also mirroring what other states already do.

“We’re one of the few DOTs in the country that doesn’t do project management,” Raimondo said. “One person needs to be accountable for every project so the projects are done on time and on budget.”

Alviti described his frustrations as he tried to get information since he took the top job at RIDOT last winter. He said he was unable to get budgets to show the cost of individual bridge projects and recently visited a worksite where the top engineer on duty said he didn’t know when the project was supposed to be done.

The second problem identified by Raimondo is poor planning and a lack of maintenance. She described RIDOT as “lurching from problem to problem,” which she called an “unbelievably expensive” way to manage the state’s roads and bridges. She cited internal RIDOT figures showing it costs roughly $157 per square foot to maintain a bridge in good condition, but $503 to rehabilitate one and $679 to reconstruct it from scratch.

“We fix what’s about to fall down, which is incredibly expensive,” Raimondo said.

Alviti said the General Assembly has authorized RIDOT to switch to an asset-management system, which he said “can save us over $1 billion in construction costs over a 10-year period” by keeping bridges in good enough condition that they will remain repairable rather than requiring rehabilitation or reconstruction. That will also require start-to-finish budgeting for projects, which he said hasn’t happened in the past.

The final problem cited by Raimondo was a familiar one – unpredictable funding. “Rhode Island is unusually dependent on federal money,” she said. “That’s not a good place to be, especially now with this federal government.”

RIDOT cited figures from the Pew Charitable Trusts that showed 55% of total surface-transportation spending in Rhode Island was paid for with federal dollars between 2007 and 2011, tied with Montana as the highest federal share in the country. That federal funding has fluctuated over recent years between a high of $268 million in 2009 and a low of $32 million in 2007, according to RIDOT.

Raimondo and Alviti used the funding discussion to yet again make their argument for RhodeWorks. Alviti said the current proposal – which calls for borrowing $600 million upfront, then paying it back plus interest using toll revenue – would still save the state about $300 million after interest payments by allowing bridges to be repaired before they deteriorate further and become more expensive to fix.

Asked how Rhode Islanders should judge the success of her efforts to improve RIDOT, Raimondo and her aides said to watch for reduced spending on consultants and more spending on actual construction work. They also said the signs of progress should be visible to residents in the form of better-quality roads and bridges.

A recently released report by consulting firm Gordon Proctor & Associates showed RIDOT spent 30% of its $150-million construction budget on consultants, compared with an average of 6% in other jurisdictions. The report was highly critical of RIDOT’s current operations.

“The people of this state are paying good money for the proper administration of DOT,” Alviti said. “We shouldn’t have to rely on outside people and pay outside people to manage DOT. It should be the managers within DOT that are responsible and accountable for it.” He said many of RIDOT’s current employees are “creative and motivated” individuals who have provided the Raimondo administration with the ideas it’s now putting into practice.

Mattiello expressed confidence in the Raimondo administration’s changes at RIDOT, noting that some of what’s being done was authorized by lawmakers as part of the 2015-16 state budget passed in June.

“I am pleased that DOT is taking important steps to ensure that the taxpayers’ money is being spent in the most efficient manner,” he said. “That is why the House authorized this reorganization plan in the enactment of the budget.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He hosts Executive Suite and writes The Saturday Morning Post. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

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