Audit: Transportation Should be More Transparent, Efficient

Audit looked into how the Montana Department of Transportation is spending gas tax money

By Associated Press

HELENA — Audits of how the state Department of Transportation is spending gas tax money found the agency needs to better document its reasons for choosing certain projects and be more efficient in spending maintenance money.

Audits released this month found the department in some cases hired contractors when it could have done the work in-house at less cost. The audits also found times when miscommunication led to overspending, Lee Newspapers of Montana reports.

The audits were required under 2017 legislation that raised the state gas tax from 4.5 cents to 31.5 cents a gallon.

Department Director Mike Tooley said the department agrees with the recommendations and is implementing them, including developing a form that lists the criteria to be used in deciding which highway projects should be funded.

“We will have standardization where we in headquarters are comfortable with the fact all districts are doing it the same,” Tooley said. “(Auditors) didn’t have any issue with the projects selected, they just didn’t know how it was prioritized over others by the district. We thought it was a fair assessment and we’re finding a better way of documenting the facts.”

Auditors found staff in the five transportation districts around the state didn’t provide clear justification for the projects they chose to forward to the state Transportation Commission. The five-member board makes the final selection on which projects get funding. The projects receive federal funding that requires a state match and the state money comes from the gas tax.

Auditors looked at 25 projects with a total estimated cost of $168.5 million and found seven cases where projects were nominated without documentation. One was a turn lane requested by a resident and another was nominated based on poor road conditions that weren’t documented.

A review of the Maintenance Division found the department did not compare in-house costs in performing some work before contracting it out.

In 2016 and 2017, auditors found if the department had done some crack sealing work itself it could have saved $400,000.

“That was a surprise to us,” Tooley said. “The rumor was always that the contractors do it cheaper and they do it better. What the audit found is in certain areas, but not all, (transportation) employees do it cheaper and at nearly the same quality.”

The audits also found times when a lack of communication cost the department money. In one case in 2017, maintenance staff filled ruts on a road just weeks after rumble strips were installed. The rut-fill project covered about 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) of recently installed rumble strips and it cost about $7,000 to pay a contractor to reinstall them.

Another example was when more expensive and longer lasting epoxy was used instead of paint to stripe 64 miles of road when segments of the road were due for major work that would wipe out the striping.

In response, the department said it will use planning resources to identify when projects overlap or conflict and implement a new maintenance management system.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.