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No competition: Single-bid contracts reign at DOT

Craig Thompson
From MacIver News Service
By Bill Osmulski   MADISON – Single-bid contracts have been a lightning rod at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation ever since the Legislative Audit Bureau identified it as a major source of DOT fiscal waste in 2017.   Any progress the agency made in getting that problem under control came to a screeching halt with Gov. Tony Evers’ appointment of Craig Thompson as DOT secretary-designee.   Thompson has been running the DOT since January, and in those eight months has approved $320 million worth of single-bid contracts. That’s just $12 million shy of what Secretary Dave Ross approved during his two years in charge.   Thompson hadn’t even been on the job a week before he signed off on two single-bid contracts totaling $1.7 million.   In order to take the job as DOT Secretary, Thompson first had to quit his position at the Transportation Development Association, where he had been the executive director and sole lobbyist for the past 10 years. When he took over, the DOT under Ross was on a search-and-destroy mission to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse.   That began when Sec. Mark Gottlieb resigned in disgrace after a 2017 legislative audit found the department had squandered billions of taxpayer dollars due to systematic failures throughout the organization. Among many other problems, the Legislative Audit Bureau found the DOT could have saved $44.7 million over a 10-year period if it stopped awarding single-bid contracts.   To help make the bidding process more competitive, the Audit Bureau recommended the DOT start following its own policies for soliciting bids. One of those policies sets quarterly goals throughout the year for the number of projects it puts out to bid. By doing that, the road builders would have to compete with one another for projects instead of projects competing for road builders – a situation that drives up project costs.   Despite a package of reform bills designed to implement the audit’s recommendations, the problem of single-bid contracts persisted. That’s why this session lawmakers introduced a new bill to get them under control. It would require the DOT to rebid projects that attract only a single bid that comes in over 10 percent higher than the DOT’s internal estimates. The assembly passed it in June, but it’s been waiting in the committee on Senate Organization ever since.   That bill is a direct result of the I-39/90 expansion project, which received a single bid of $126 million. That was 20 percent higher than the DOT expected. Thompson approved it March 1, claiming the DOT’s engineers screwed up their original cost projections. It was one of 60 single-bid contracts he has signed off on so far.   Thompson’s record on one-bid contracts demonstrates his reluctance to look for cost savings that might come at the expense of his former clients.   None of that really seemed to matter to the Senate’s transportation committee. Last month the committee, made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, approved Thompson’s nomination on a 4-0 vote. The recommendation now moves on to the full Senate.    Read the full story from the MacIver Institute here  

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