As anyone who reads The Brew knows, Baltimore’s Department of Transportation moves at a very slow pace. But 20 years slow?
That’s how long it took DOT to close out the “Mount Street/Amtrak Project” in West Baltimore – i.e., the time lapse between when the $2.5 million project was completed in 1998 and the date when DOT sent out its final vouchers for reimbursement in 2018.
Most large roadway projects in Baltimore are federally funded. This means that the city must gather up the paperwork, dot the i’s, cross the t’s, and request reimbursement from Washington via the State Highway Administration.
Recouping such money can take decades at DOT “because things just kind of sit there,” City Auditor Josh Pasch told the Board of Estimates, releasing an audit of DOT’s contract closeouts.
Out of 18 projects reviewed by auditors, “DOT was not able to provide documentation for seven samples, or approximately 39% of the samples selected for testing,” the report noted.
Examining the 11 projects with a paper trail, “we identified delays ranging from 16 months to 235 months (approximately 19.6 years) from the completion of construction to the reimbursement voucher sent to the SHA,” the report continued.
Pasch said he had no cumulative figure to show what those delays cost the city, but noted that the 11 projects involved federal reimbursements ranging from $91,000 to $2.5 million.
Shortchanging the Future
All sorts of stop-gap measures are used to cover the lengthy periods between when contractors are paid and when the city gets reimbursed, according to Comptroller Bill Henry.
Sometimes, reserve funds are raided. Other times, general funds are reallocated. The end result is that delayed reimbursements “restrict the city’s ability to start other needed construction projects,” Henry said yesterday.
Another big takeaway: DOT has never established timelines and deadlines in the closeout process. “Basically, one division will send the files to another division. But there is no overall tracking,” Pasch told the board on Wednesday.
“Basically, one division will send the files to another division. But there is no overall tracking” – City Auditor Josh Pasch.
Estimating that three months was a reasonable period for each DOT division to complete its share of the paperwork, Pasch said it actually took this long:
• 8-to-173 months for the the director’s office and Transportation, Engineering and Construction Division to sign off on the initial Certificate of Work Completion.
• 6-to-32 additional months for Contract Administration to review a project’s “construction box” of expenditures, outstanding invoices, Extra Work Orders (EWOs) and funding sources.
• Yet another 9-to-74 months of waiting for the OK from the Fiscal Division to send the package to the State Highway Administration, followed by another city agency (Bureau of Accounting & Payroll Services) handling the final consolidated billing.
The fastest any sampled project made it through this bureaucratic maze was 16 months, Pasch reported, while the longest was the 20-year Mount Street/Amtrak gap that made Mayor Brandon Scott shake his head during the audit presentation.
“I just want to state for the record that we know we have a new DOT director at the helm,” Scott said, referring to Corren Johnson, who was sworn in last month.
“I know that she has already started to pull back the hood on DOT and [is] putting in electronic practices, standard operating procedures and everything we need to make sure projects are paid in a timely fashion.”
DOT’s Solution: More Staff and Software
Johnson was not present at the board meeting, but Scott promised that she “is going to be making these changes each and every day.”
That left Deputy DOT Director Laetitia Gardner to outline how the agency planned to speed up the closeout process.
“We have started to track the entire process,” she told the board.
“We have increased our staff from one to four staff members, two being full-time employees, two being contractual employees. We’re also looking, researching, software that will help us streamline the closeout process.”
Although she said she was happy to answer any questions, none were asked, and the panel moved on to other matters.
History of Delays
Brew stories on DOT cost overruns and delays:
• Costs keep climbing at Harford Road Bridge (9/8/20)