MacIver News Service

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Tony Evers’ pick for transportation secretary is weighing an expensive decision, one that could cost taxpayers millions of dollars or cause lengthy delays for a major transportation project.

The DOT awarded the contract to a partnership, single bidder, despite the fact that the bid came in at $20 million over the estimated $100 million project cost.

Department of Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson was in the hot seat Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Veterans & Military Affairs.

Thompson, who spent years working for transportation interests before Evers tapped him to lead the DOT, formally introduced himself to a committee that holds significant sway among their colleagues in the Senate, charged with confirming or rejecting the Democrat’s nominee.

Several Republicans have expressed concerns about Thompson’s lobbyist past, something he attempted to downplay. Thompson led the Transportation Development Association for nearly a dozen years, but he told the committee that the TDA did very little actual lobbying on legislation over his tenure. Still, the organization’s mission as an advocate for transportation-related interests — from contractors and big labor to local governments — is crystal clear.

Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) posed the question that many of his Republican colleagues have asked.

“For the past number of years you have worked for the TDA and with the road builders. What assurance can you give taxpayers that in your role as secretary you’re going to be working for the taxpayers of the state of Wisconsin?” Marklein asked.

Again, Thompson bristled at the transportation lobbyist tag, asserting that TDA’s members come from diverse viewpoints on transportation.

“The assurance I would have is that my interest is in improving the transportation network for the users …” the secretary-designee said. “The folks that are involved in building the system, at the secretary level we don’t get involved at all in who wins contracts and who doesn’t win contracts.”

The secretary certainly signs off on contracts, however, and Thompson faces a $100 million decision in that regard.

Marklein asked Thompson whether he had approved a non-competitive bid for a stretch of the $1.2 billion reconstruction and expansion of Interstate-39/90.

Not yet, Thompson said. But his agency has. The DOT awarded the contract to a partnership, single bidder, despite the fact that the bid came in at $20 million over the estimated $100 million project cost.

“The department awarded the project, but all that means is they allowed it to go forward to the secretary,” Thompson said in an interview with MacIver News Service following Wednesday’s committee hearing. “If I would sign it then I would be executing it. Then I would send it to the governor and he would have to sign it and then it would be executed.”

The bidding partners, (Rock Road Companies Inc. of Janesville and Hoffman Construction Co. of Black River Falls, according to Thompson) have handled the brunt of the 45-mile expansion project, from the Illinois state line to the U.S. 12/18 interchange near Madison.

M. D. Kittle is an investigative reporter with the MacIver Institute. Reposted with permission.