Assembly Republicans have asked the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to update its cost estimates for ongoing, future and completed highway projects after the release this week of a critical audit.
The audit, conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau, found that the DOT significantly underestimated the costs of ongoing and completed major highway projects.
Costs for 19 completed projects exceeded estimates by $772.5 million, or double what was projected, the audit found, and cost estimates for 16 ongoing major highway projects were underestimated by a total of about $3.1 billion. The discrepancies were attributed to a failure to account for the extent to which inflation and unexpected expenses could contribute to cost increases.
"Taxpayers deserve to know how much a road is going to cost before it’s built," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, these miscalculations will probably confirm what many of us fear; our transportation fund is deeper in the red than we thought."
Vos, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, and Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, sent a letter on Friday to newly-appointed DOT Secretary Dave Ross seeking updated estimates.
The lawmakers are seeking a "full review" of cost estimates for ongoing mega and major highway projects planned or budgeted for the 2017-19 and 2019-21 budget years, a review of all projects not yet enumerated and a "comprehensive report" on all projects since 2010 documenting estimated and actual costs.
"We would like to have in detail how and why these underestimates continued to occur in order to prevent issues like these from happening again," they wrote.
They have requested a report from the department by March 15, before the Legislature's budget committee starts its work this spring on the 2017-19 budget.
"Lawmakers need to account for these new estimates in the overall budget plan as the nearly $1 billion projected deficit in the transportation fund could potentially be far worse than initially reported," they wrote.
The audit comes weeks before Gov. Scott Walker is set to release his budget proposal, and amid an ongoing debate over how to address a projected $1 billion shortfall in the state's transportation fund.
Democrats blamed the Republican majority for the report's findings, arguing the GOP has failed to provide a long-term solution.
"Our infrastructure is falling apart before our eyes and the governor has not come up with a plan, nor does it sound like he’s going to come up with a plan to address this long-term," Joint Finance member Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said Thursday.
Walker has pledged to veto any budget that includes a gas tax or vehicle registration fee increase without a corresponding decrease.
"The bottom line is we shouldn’t even be thinking about raising the gas tax or fees until we find every last cost savings at the DOT, and the audit shows we can find more savings. We welcome the opportunity to deliver services taxpayers expect at a price they can afford," Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said Thursday.
Assembly Republicans last week called for a $300 million increase in funding offset by corresponding cuts elsewhere. They have not said where they would like to raise that revenue, but Vos acknowledged last week a gas tax hike is unlikely.
The DOT budget proposal introduced in September would cut funding for state highway programs while providing more money for local roads and existing highways, delay some major projects and authorize $500 million in new bonding.