MacIver News Service | July 20, 2017
By Tyler Brandt, M.D. Kittle, & Matt Tragesser
[Madison, Wis…] There’s a lot of back and forth in Wisconsin’s transportation funding fight.
The “revenue enhancer” faction will tell you that a $1 billion transportation budget shortfall – a figure that has been disputed – needs to be filled like potholes with more taxpayer cash. They insist on gas taxes, vehicle fees, something, anything to deliver a “long-term solution” to the Badger State’s transpo needs. Bonding is bad, very bad, they say, tantamount to a drunken spender on a credit card bender.
But the band of bonding brothers and sisters say the tax-hike camp is taking taxpayers for a bumpy ambulance ride. They just say no to the notion of gas tax increases and fee hikes. More so, they argue that before the Legislature and the governor ask taxpayers to shoulder more of the burden for the state’s roads and bridges, particularly in an era of budget surpluses, the pols should first get a handle on a troubled Department of Transportation that has wasted billions of tax dollars.
Fine, the enhancers fire back. But there isn’t nearly enough in DOT waste and inefficiencies to fill the funding gap for all of those crumbling roads and cash suck southeast Wisconsin “Mega Projects,” they declare.
The MacIver Institute has dug into the numbers, taken a deeper dive into DOT projects that are at the very least questionable, if not an outright waste of taxpayer money, and administrative failures that have added substantial and unnecessary costs. We found nearly $2 billion in wasteful Wisconsin projects and practices – $1,965,882,239 to be precise.
As conservative lawmakers weigh gas tax hikes, vehicle fee uppers, tolls, heavy truck taxes, hefty borrowing, even trading income tax cuts for transportation funding, we urge them to revisit the DOT projects and practices that are unnecessarily costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Here is the list, in no particular order. Find more examples or submit your DOT wasteful project suggestions on Twitter using the hashtag #WISDOTwasted, or send them directly to us using this form.
1) Bublr Stations in West Allis, Shorewood and Wauwatosa – $2 million. TOTAL $400,000 LOCAL SHARE
Given the supposed shortfall in the transportation fund for road projects, is it a good idea to spend this transportation money on a bike project?
2) Milwaukee Bike Rack Program – $680,000 TOTAL $130,000 LOCAL SHARE
Milwaukee is expanding its bike rack program, at a cost of $680k. Local taxpayers would pay $130k. Nothing says fixing bad roads like bike racks.
3) Failed Goals – $191.9 million TOTAL WASTE
Anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows you have to set goals – and follow them – if you want to shed pounds or maintain a healthy weight. If the DOT’s performance measurement goals were a diet plan, that plan would be built on Chocodiles and saturated fat sandwiches. A legislative audit earlier this year showed DOT staff routinely disregarded established procedures designed to manage and improve operations. From fiscal year 2009-10 to 2014-15, the agency could have saved $191.9 million, or an average of $32 million per year, if its total costs during the construction phase of the state highway projects had not exceeded annual performance measurement goals.
4) Design-Build Savings
Wisconsin is missing out on untold hundreds of millions of dollars in savings by sticking with the old design-bid-build approach to transportation projects – like Chicago Bears fans stick to their failing team. Like Bears fans, the DOT has grown accustomed to losing, but it’s the taxpayer on the hook for the agency’s failure to recognize the huge cost savings to be had in the design-build approach. The practice integrates the standard activities involved in transportation projects under a single contract. The Texas Department of Transportation, for instance, reported its best-value design-build proposals usually come in 15 to 20 percent below the engineer’s estimates, according to a Texas A&M Transportation Institute Study. And design-build projects in the study typically were completed from three to 10 months early, another big cost savings. Twenty percent on a $1 billion project is a Packers-over-the-Bears-style win for Wisconsin taxpayers.
5) Root River Parkway/Greendale Bike Trail – $1 million TOTAL $200,000 LOCAL SHARE
New bike trail for $1 million with locals on the hook for $200k. Root River parkway is a secluded place with minimal traffic where cyclists happily bike on the roads. Why spend an extra million from taxpayers when cyclists already have a safe route?
6) West Allis Cross-Town Connector – $3 million TOTAL $600,000 LOCAL SHARE
The City of West Allis’ latest boondoggle is a $3 million dollar bike plan to build a Cross-Town Connector. It will include bike roundabouts, a bike bridge, new paths, and on-street lanes. The path is being built because the Department of Natural Resources believes the route will reduce congestion and pollution in the city of Milwaukee caused by more West Allis residents commuting to work. In the DNR’s world, it’s Bike to Work Day every day.
7) Roundabout Training Driving Videos – $30,000
The DOT spent $30,000 on videos explaining to drivers how to guide their cars through roundabouts. Wisconsinites hate roundabouts like injustice, so an instructional video on roundabouts is like a handbook on headaches. Nobody wants one, so why would they want to read about it? Here’s a video for the DOT: “Dude, Where’s My Tax Money?”
8) DOT Bid Failures – $44,700,000
The DOT lost $44.7 million by failing to solicit more than one bid for 363 of its construction contracts between January 2006 and December 2015. Had each of those projects received just one more bid, DOT would have saved $4.5 million per year from ’06-’15, according to an audit of the agency. So much for competition. So much for taxpayer savings.
9) A Bridge Too Near – $3.6 Million
A $3.6 million pedestrian bridge was constructed in West Allis even though there is a bridge with pedestrian access just two minutes away. Is it too much to ask citizens to walk an extra block and a half? Isn’t Big Government trying to make us exercise more? Is two minutes worth $3.6 million? But there’s a bigger issue. West Allis isn’t a bicycle commuter community. It’s a strip mall city, a suburban outpost serving beer, not bicyclists – unless those bicyclists want a beer.
10) Otter Exhibit – $12.4 million
The DOT offered the Milwaukee County Zoo $8 million when it took 700 parking spaces away for the zoo-interchange project. Of the $8 million, only $2 million would be needed to build a new lot. The Zoo instead sued the DOT and got $12.7 million. It used the extra $10 million taken from the transportation fund for a welcome center and otter exhibit. Really Zoo? You otter be kidding us.
11) Poynette & Portage Rest Stops – $22 million TOTAL, $2.2 million STATE PORTION
In 2010, two of the nicest rest stops in the country were constructed in Poynette and Portage. The old rest stops were torn down and replaced due to overcrowding. Not only did DOT expand the rest stops to be the largest in the state, the agency designed the buildings with ornate Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. The place has the aura of an architectural shrine, but in reality aren’t these rest stops really just restrooms? Does $22 million to pee (excuse our language) seem a bit much?
12) Starkweather Creek Bike Path – $312,000 LAWSUIT
The City of Madison put a bike/pedestrian bridge in front of McDonald’s. The bridge crippled business and forced the restaurant to move down the street. McDonald’s sued the city and won$312,000.
The bridge was built for safety reasons because there have been a few instances of people getting killed trying to cross the street. A couple years after the bridge was built a person was crossing at street level and was struck and killed by a car, yet again. Local residents and businesses were interviewed and most said nobody uses the bridge because it is out of their way. You will find a number of Madison/Dane County bike transportation projects on this list. The DOT and Dane County are literally committing highway robbery, pilfering taxpayer cash from highway priorities to pay for bicycle routes and bridges.
13) Cannonball Bike Path, Bridge, and Roundabout – $3.6 million TOTAL, $720,000 LOCAL SHARE
The Cannonball Path features the state’s first bike roundabout. The path also includes 4.5 miles of trail, a bike tunnel, and a bike bridge. It will cost $3.6 million to feed Madison’s bike addiction when roads around the state are said to be strapped for cash.
14) Use Public Feedback – $2.3 million
Public feedback is generally a good thing, unless you are a super-sensitive college student who cannot function outside a safe space. The DOT has its own safe space; it simply ignores criticism. Sometimes the public asks the DOT not to do projects because those projects would have adverse effects on nearby communities. The DOT often goes ahed with projects anyway, according to the legislative audit.
15) U.S. 41 Build Out – $6 million
For the U.S. 41 freeway project in Brown County, there are 24 roundabouts being constructed in just a 14-mile stretch. The project also includes the planting of 30,400 plants and shrubs as well as 4,100 trees. A cost estimate puts the roundabouts at about $6 million. That’s got to have taxpayers feel like they’re going in circles.
16) Siren, WI Roundabout – $3.5 million
The DOT ripped up a perfectly serviceable intersection north of Siren, and replaced it with a roundabout. Why the DOT would waste $3.5 million to put a roundabout in a village of 806 people is hard to understand.
17) Polk County Roundabout – $1.5 million
The DOT replaced a faultless intersection with a roundabout north of Amery, a sparsely populated area. Yet again we see the DOT ripping up intersections in small towns and replacing them with roundabouts, at nearly no one’s insistence.
18) Wrightstown Bridge – $632,000
Citizens of Wrightstown (population 2,827) are getting a new bridge to replace an old, deficient one across the Fox River. The bridge may have been necessary, but what about the pedestrian, bicycle, and snowmobile accommodations? The bike path alone is an extra $500,000 to $632,000.
19) Eau Claire Water Street Bridge – $316,000
The new Water Street Bridge in Eau Claire includes bike lanes, pedestrian accommodations, decorative lighting, decorative concrete on the piers and abutments, decorative railings, designs etched into the columns, pedestals at the light locations, arched mask walls at pier locations, antiqued concrete, outside concrete beam painting, and scenic overlooks. This bridge gives new meaning to the expression “bells and whistles.”
20) Baraboo Bypass – $200 million
A new bypass was constructed around Baraboo just east of Mirror Lake State Park. But U.S. 12 already is a perfectly serviceable highway, covering the same route as the bypass. Oh, and Baraboo is the only town along the bypass. MacIver went out during rush hour traffic and found that barely anyone uses it. Bypasses are proving to be the most costly and the most wasteful projects that the DOT has been approving in recent years.
21) West Waukesha Bypass – $50 million
A four-lane thoroughfare spanning Waukesha between Interstate-94 and Highway 59 is being constructed for $50 million. Some 550 locals signed a petition opposing the bypass in 2011 and 2012. And yet the transportation money train rolls on.
22) Lower Yahara River Trail – $10.5 million TOTAL, $2.1 million LOCAL SHARE
The largest bike bridge in all of Wisconsin is being constructed in Dane County. The 2.5-mile trail will include more than a mile of bridges and boardwalk. The trail itself will include an innovative “floating boardwalk”, rest stops, observation areas, and a fishing pier. Again, the bicycle capital of Wisconsin is costing taxpayers big money.
23) Capital City Trail Extension – $1.8 million TOTAL $360,000 LOCAL SHARE
This bike path will become the state’s largest once completed. However, one mile of this proposed bike path will cost $1.8 million, which is significantly higher than the usual $200,000. That’s $341 per foot.
24) West Towne Path: High Point Road to Junction Road – $3.6 million TOTAL $720,000 LOCAL SHARE
A half-mile bike path in the City of Madison is set to be completed in 2018, at a cost of $3.6 million. Part of the expense is a $1 million bike underpass that is much costlier than DOT’s averages for similar projects. How much money could we save if we stop giving Dane County bike funding?
25) Ice Age Junction Path – $2.5 million TOTAL $500,000 LOCAL SHARE
Two miles of bike path are set to be completed in the city of Madison in 2018-19, costing $2.5 million. This project includes up to nine bridges and underpasses, which seems excessive considering the amount of bike routes already existing in the city.
26) St. Croix Crossing – $650 million TOTAL $285 million STATE PORTION
The Minnesota Department of Transportation and Wisconsin DOT collaborated to build a new bridge crossing the St. Croix river between Houlton and Stillwater, Minn. A new bridge seems necessary but over-engineering puts the project into question.
The new bridge is a state-of-the-art “extradosed” bridge, only the second of its kind built in the nation, despite low traffic counts and an existing bridge 15 minutes south. Also, the old bridge was not torn down, but remodeled and designed to be a bike/pedestrian crossing with rest areas and viewing platforms. The old bridge is now part of a 4.5 mile bike-loop which also connects around the new bridge.
Another part of the cost was a $1.7 million communication contract to hire a PR manager with the sole task of drumming up support for the bridge. Selling the taxpayer on a massively expensive bridge doesn’t come cheap. What’s more, the $650 million bridge costs more than it would to fix all of the 1,149 structurally deficient bridges in Minnesota. Priorities.
27) Wisconsin Highway 67 – $28 million
In Oconomowoc there was a large build-out of roads, a highway overpass, civilian paths, bike lanes, and much more as a result of Pabst Farms plans to build a regional outdoor shopping mall. The original plans for the mall failed, meaning there wouldn’t be any major increases in traffic, making the highway build wasteful.
28) St. Croix County Bike Path Plan – $33.2 million
First of all, Wow! $33.2 million for a bike path. Think about that for a moment. The plan includes 69 projects in this rural county. Supporters claim a head-scratching return on investment of $9 for every public dollar spent. That claim is based on a North Carolina Outer Banks case study. Makes sense. St. Croix County is, of course, exactly like North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The thinking by project promoters: Well, if it could happen there, it could happen here. Hey, it worked for Sinatra in New York, New York. The bike path plan is just that, a plan. So we didn’t add the price tag to our list of wasteful projects. But we’ve all seen this movie before. St. Croix County isn’t going to come up with the full $33.2 million. Local government officials will have their hands out, expecting state and federal taxpayers to pick up much of the tab for the bike path.
29) Hidden Valley Bridge – $360,000
The Hidden Valley Bridge was built in Sylvan, a hamlet with a population of 543 people. Over one-third of construction costs went toward design and supervision.
30) Lake Butte Des Morts – $54 million
This bridge boasts an extravagant design, including nine bridge structures and aesthetic earth, fire, and water murals on the columns. The build also includes pedestrian, bike, and fishing accommodations. Why spend money on murals that only the fish can see? Sound fishy?
31) Janesville Road – $1,913,739
Two identical segments of Janesville Road in Muskego were recently reconstructed, one using federal dollars and the other using solely local transportation dollars. The mile-long segment completed with local dollars cost $6,280,000, while the mile-long segment completed with federal dollars cost $8,193,739. There’s a wrong turn in here somewhere. This $1,913,739 difference shows how federal regulation of road projects drives up costs. A bill originally proposed by Sen. Duey Stroebel and Rep. Rob Brooks, both Republicans from Saukville, would “swap” a portion of federal funds within transportation programs with existing state transportation dollars, removing “burdensome, expensive and ineffectual federal regulations.
32) Buffalo-Winona Great River State Trail Connector – $3-4 Million TOTAL, $1,320,000 LOCAL
A bike trail in a rural, sparsely populated area between Winona, Minn., and the outskirts of La Crosse was constructed. The project cost between $3 million and $4 million with the master plan connecting Winona to Madison. Again, if the priority is roads, why is $4 million for a bike trail part of the budget?
33) Lake County Trail Underpass – $227,000
A pedestrian tunnel is being constructed under WIS 67 at Oconomowoc parkway as a result of expected increased traffic from a proposed regional outdoor shopping mall. The original Pabst Farms shopping mall plans failed and there will no be significant increases in traffic, making the tunnel a waste. Another bad transportation bet. More so, there are plenty of bicycle trails in Waukesha County. Is it the government’s job to tie together an elaborate bike trail system or is it to maintain roads and public safety? If budgets are about priorities, it looks like the pushers of this project took a wrong turn.
34) Wolf River Bridge – $14 million
In the little town of Winneconne, a bridge will be constructed next to a 75-year-old draw bridge. The draw bridge has been determined to be safe for travel by the DOT, but the national bridge inventory has identified it as deficient based on its own ratings. The new project calls for two fishing piers on each side of the river and a trail for snowmobiles on one side of the bridge that will serve just 2,400 citizens. DOT’s motto: While building the unnecessary, why not add a few perks.
35) Vilas County ATV Trail – $330,000
Vilas County could have constructed an ATV trail with an original bid total of $180,000, but prevailing wage artificially pushed the cost up to $330,000 for the same exact project. The county went on with the project despite the inflated cost. That’s Exhibit A on why prevailing wage reform has been so critical to taxpayers.
36) State Roundabouts – $10 million
Forty roundabouts are planned to be constructed in the state within the next four years. These roundabouts will total over $10 million. That bears repeating: $10 million in roundabouts. That’s a dizzying figure for something so despised.
37) La Crosse North/South Corridor – $143 million
The DOT has been obsessed with building a road through the La Crosse River marsh for decades. The initial proposal was dubbed the “North/South Corridor” and would have paved a four-lane highway through the marsh from near Interstate-90 to the city’s downtown. The price tag recently jumped to $143 million after the DOT audit found the department had low-balled cost estimates.
After La Crosse voters overwhelmingly rejected the DOT’s North/South Corridor plan in a referendum in 1998, by a two-thirds vote, the DOT has returned to the idea. In recent years the department has identified a number of alternatives to the rejected plan. While DOT struggles to fund other projects that are underway throughout the state, it seems insistent on spending $143 million it doesn’t have on a project in La Crosse that nobody seems to want.
38) 17th Street Lift Bridge – $14 million TOTAL, $3 million-plus LOCAL SHARE
Yes, this 60-year-old bridge in Two Rivers was found to be suffering from structural deterioration. But the city administrator acknowledges that a relatively new, four-lane Wisconsin Highway 42 bridge, just five blocks to the north “could handle all vehicular traffic crossing the East Twin River.” Still, the council “and many local residents” got behind the “lift bridge or no bridge at all” project “in order to maintain a vital vehicular, bike and pedestrian link from our downtown to the City’s east side and Lake Michigan beach.” The rest of the taxpayers in every other part of the state – and the federal taxpayers around the country who chipped in $8 million – might not have felt the same passion to build this bridge too near. But, then again, they didn’t have a choice in the matter.
39) Enforce Engineering Delivery Cost Index Prices – $6.6 million TOTAL
For the past 20 years, the DOT has spent considerable effort determining what engineering work should cost for state projects. It recalculates this every year. This should improve engineering efficiency – that is when staff doesn’t ignore the report.
40) Prevailing Wage Savings
This one’s on the Legislature. Ending Wisconsin’s antiquated and costly prevailing wage law should have been done a long time ago. Case in point, Vilas County, which could have constructed an ATV trail with an original bid total of $180,000, but prevailing wage artificially pushed the cost up to $330,000 for the same project. The county went on with the project despite the inflated cost. That’s Exhibit A on why prevailing wage reform has been so critical to taxpayers. Here’s Exhibit B: As MacIver News Service reported in 2015, a flagger – someone who stands on the side of the road and turns signs – makes $23.55 an hour and collects $20.03 in benefits per hour. That’s equivalent to $90,000 per year, although flaggers typically don’t work a full year. For comparison, median annual household income in Wisconsin was $55,638 in 2015, according to the latest data available.
41) Freeway Service Teams – $2.1 million TOTAL
Why join AAA when the state offers the same great services at taxpayer expense? The DOT’s Freeway Service Teams can change your flat tire, fuel you up when you run out of gas, open your door when you lock your keys inside, and even tow you to the dealer. What’s next, discounts on motels and Disney travel packages?
42) New Stop Light Designs – $57.5 million TOTAL
Given the choice between two equally effective options to solve a problem, the least expensive option is usually the road most traveled. That’s not how Wisconsin’s DOT rolls. New traffic signal poles, called “monotubes,” cost between $250,000 and $275,000 per intersection. The old “trombone style” intersections cost between $200,000 and $225,000. So naturally, the DOT goes for the more expensive “monotube” style. So far it has installed over 1,100 of them.
43) Rebar Usage in Road Construction – $30 million TOTAL
For many of its road and bridge projects, DOT used a stainless steel rebar instead of an epoxy coated rebar. Using the stainless steel rebar cost far more and does not offer the same high life expectancy as the epoxy coated rebar. Just what every taxpayer and consumer wants: A product that costs more and does less.
44) DOT Added Staff – $10 million TOTAL
DOT added 180 engineering positions in the 2015-2017 state budget. These new positions cost nearly $10 million per year in salaries. The figure jumps when considering health and retirement benefits. Great! More engineers to forget to include inflation in the cost of road projects while never forgetting the DOT’s great love affair with roundabouts. You’ve heard the old joke? How many engineers does it take to waste hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money? A: Apparently 180 more.
45) Resurface with oil and stone mix – $??? TOTAL
The public works director in Montello told the MacIver News Service he uses oil and stone instead of asphalt whenever possible to resurface the city’s roads. It makes for a bumpy ride for bicyclists and skateboarders, but it makes for a serviceable road at a fraction of the cost. He can do a mile for $9,000 compared to $80,000 for asphalt.
Total Cost to Wisconsin: $1,671,320,239
Total Local Cost: $294,262,000
Total Overall Cost : $1,965,882,239