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Editorial – NC paved with politics

It turns out there’s a simple way to pay for a new Yadkin River Bridge and other future transportation projects, and it won’t require tolls or new taxes.
Just eliminate the waste in the state Department of Transportation and banish the political cronyism that continues to plague the DOT board, which exerts a powerful influence over when and where major projects are funded.
Those are the obvious conclusions from a steady drumbeat of bad news regarding DOT operations and oversight. Most recently, state auditors on Thursday released a sternly critical report describing a DOT management system that sounds as erratic and bumbling as a runaway bulldozer. The DOT, the report says, wastes tens of millions of taxpayer dollars through delays and cost overruns, makes decisions based on “hunches” rather than rigorous planning and has no internal road map to right its own inefficiencies. In a single three-year period, the audit uncovered more than $150 million in unnecessary construction costs. At that rate, you could save enough for the Yadkin Bridge project in six years or so.
Taken alone, those findings should be sufficient to fast-track reforms to make the DOT more efficient, more insulated from politics and less bureaucratic.
But that indictment doesn’t stand alone. It follows another DOT review by an independent consultant that found similar evidence of waste, along with poorly managed employees and a lack of accountability. That report, completed last year by McKinsey & Co., proved so unflattering that DOT chief Lyndo Tippett was reluctant to release it for public scrutiny, even though the DOT itself had initiated the survey at a cost of $2.5 million.
While those two studies illuminate serious problems in the way the DOT is managed, the problems extend beyond departmental bureaucracies. Politics also comes into play. According to a recent report in the News & Observer of Raleigh, the good ol’ boy (and gal) system still paves the way for appointments to the DOT’s governing body. Despite avowals to make the board more professional and accountable, its members appear as likely to be selected for their fund-raising prowess as for transportation expertise or commitment to improving DOT practices. Besides continuing to steer projects to favored districts, some board members take advantage of loosely written disclosure laws that allow them to avoid disclosing political donations raised on behalf of others who hold or are seeking state office, including Gov. Mike Easley. That means contractors with a vested interest in DOT projects can make donations that pass under the disclosure radar.
Tippett has acknowledged some problems within the DOT and has promised the department is cleaning up its act. That’s only part of the problem, however. Pavement and politics are still tightly wedded in North Carolina. Along with restructuring within the department, it’s essential to bring reform to the board, with tighter disclosure rules and more emphasis on transportation expertise and statewide planning. Facing a projected $65 billion shortfall in transportation funding over the next two decades, the state can’t afford to have a transportation department that labors under the handicaps of politics, parochialism and rampant waste.

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