While the Oregon Department of Transportation seeks major increases in taxes and fees to fund roads and other projects, its leaders continue to resist changes to ensure those new roads last a long time, new documents show.
In its version of the honor system, the state highway department pays out $400 million a year for bridge and road projects based largely on construction contractors' self-testing, including of pavement quality. While contractors like it this way, the Federal Highway Administration in 2005 and again in 2013 warned ODOT that its oversight system was vulnerable to fraud, and needed improvements.
Better oversight could have a huge impact on the quality of materials used in construction, including asphalt, one of the biggest-ticket expenditures ODOT has. This would make roads last longer and so would better testing, as even a slight decrease in pavement density could "lose two years of road lifespan," according to one of the new documents.
The new documents come as the Legislature considers a funding package to boost ODOT road construction and bridge retrofitting, one that is expected to contain hikes in Oregon's gas tax and vehicle registration fees.
Documents obtained by the Portland Tribune show that in 2015, the department's own experts in an internal memo said much the same thing as federal officials did, calling for a "better approach."
Click here to read the 2015 ODOT staff recommendation
And in October 2016, an outside expert hired by ODOT to look at the problem echoed the staff recommendation, finding that ODOT continues to use oversight techniques favored by the powerful contracting industry even when a better alternative used by other states would be "easy and quick."
Click here to read the 2016 ODOT consultant's interim report
ODOT Quality Assurance Engineer Greg Stellmach last year told state auditors that ODOT's pavement oversight unit is seriously understaffed and lacks enforcement power, and his boss said more staff should be on the agency's "critical wish list," documents show.
Pavement quality is "probably getting worse," according to Stellmach, according to records obtained from the Secretary of State's office. The ODOT manager added that contractors know "how to cut corners."
ODOT leaders still balking
Despite the mounting calls from its own employees, federal officials and the outside consultant for better oversight of its spending, ODOT leadership says it still lacks the evidence to say whether beefing up road construction oversight is a good idea — perhaps reflecting resistance from highway construction contractors. ODOT managers say those contractors hold tremendous sway in the department's decision-making. According to one 2015 internal memo by ODOT pavement experts recommending better oversight, Oregon's highway construction industry "is likely to question and resist any changes to the existing system."
Joe Squire, the department's head construction official, said through a spokesman that ODOT is awaiting a newer version of a 2016 consultant's report performed by the Texas Transportation Institute before deciding whether to adopt the recommendations first issued by federal highway officials in 2005.
"ODOT is assessing what value may be added (if any)" from improving its paving oversight as recommended, according to the spokesman, Tom Fuller.
Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, of John Day, said the newest documents confirm his earlier research on the subject.
"For years, ODOT has stonewalled federal and state audit exceptions that strongly recommend changes in the testing protocols for asphalt and concrete that would bring Oregon's testing standards into line with those used in most other states," Ferrioli said, adding that the weaknesses contribute to potholes and overspending on rebuilding roadways. "This management failure affects the safety of the motoring public and the pocketbooks of Oregon taxpayers."
Squire and Fuller, for their part, echoed ODOT Director Matt Garrett's long-standing position that ODOT doesn't have a problem with pavement or oversight, citing internal pavement ratings. In effect, the department's leaders publicly disagree with the conclusions drawn by its own managers charged with ensuring pavement quality and long life.
Internal ODOT dissent
Newly obtained documents echo earlier disclosures and show that as recently as May 2016, ODOT's top quality oversight official felt ODOT's oversight was out of whack. According to an interview report prepared by secretary of state auditors, the pavement quality manager, Stellmach, told them that under ODOT's system of letting contractors peform their own tests to prove quality standards are met, ODOT checks one out of 10 test results — the "thinnest" rate of testing allowable, he told auditors. Because the state rate of double-checking is so low, "the contractor has a strong incentive to not do the quality work it used to," according to Stellmach.
A federal highway official, Anthony Boesen, told state auditors that ODOT's doing the bare minimum of checking contractor self-testing means that 90 percent of bad pavement can slip through, whereas increased testing would have disproportionate benefits. If ODOT continues to check a mere 10 percent of contractor tests, "then there is a 1 in 10 chance of finding something," he said, according to an interview summary. "If they perform 15% to 20% materials testing, then there is a 35% chance of finding something. Just a little bit more testing and you have a greater amount of catching issues."
Indeed, a 2015 ODOT staff recommendation to address the problems said much the same thing. The memo was prepared by ODOT's quality-assurance steering committee composed of internal experts, and sent to the agency's construction leadership team.
The department's experts said that short-staffing and limited expertise at ODOT means "the opportunity for 'working the system' without being caught by ODOT is much greater," the memo stated. "We believe there is a better approach that would provide more confidence" in pavement quality.
The memo recommended that staff conduct research into potential improvements and requested ODOT leaders support the idea.
Instead, ODOT hired an outside expert who works for the Texas Transportation Institute and used to work for the paving industry.
ODOT received an interim report from the institute with "preliminary recommendations" that suggested ODOT should consider changes that would likely entail increasing testing, much as the federal government had recommended in 2005 and 2013.
Moreover, the consultant flatly recommended ODOT change how and where it samples pavement to accurately measure what's being placed on the ground, much as the federal government had recommended since 2005 and as ODOT staff had recommended in 2015.
ODOT currently allows samples to be taken at the asphalt plant at known intervals, a system that is popular in the construction industry but, according to former employees, consultants and documents, can be easily gamed by the contractor to deceive the state.
A better system would be to test the pavement after it's laid on the road as many other states do, according to the consultant's report. "The sampling location should be shifted away from the plant and into the field." One advantage listed by the report? Doing so can be "easy and quick."
The consultant also echoed the federal recommendations since 2005 that ODOT should beef up its statistical analysis, as Oregon's current system provides "little information" as to how a project's pavement "might perform in the future."