When it comes to roads, it’s not the money, it’s the execution



Bob Chernow

9:56 a.m. CT May 16, 2017

How we handle transportation and road construction has been troubled since Tommy Thompson.

The key here is not money, but the dysfunctional way road building operates. Here are a few concrete recommendations.

1) Expand the bidding system to encourage smaller road builders and out-of-state builders to bid for jobs. Bids should be secret (they have not always been). Bonds need to be relative to a job. Bond requirements increased years ago to exclude bidders. Funds need to be withheld to ensure work has been properly completed.

2) Create a triage system that will prioritize construction projects. This is not being done.

3) Recognize that “costs” increase between the time of conception and construction. The Department of Natural Resources is responsible for environmental evaluations that are required before a road is constructed. The DNR does not get enough funds to do all the work at one time. Work is done piecemeal which is less effective and takes much longer. Environmental analysis done as a whole instead could shave off two to three years.

3) View road construction long term. Many roads are noisy (requiring expensive barriers), require continual maintenance and do not last long. Spend more for better roads to save in the future.

4) Review how R&D is done. At one time, the Department of Transportation did R&D internally but R&D was given to the road builder industry which has a disincentive to improve roads. I understand that R&D now is done by academics.

5) Walk the “factory floor.” This is what great business and government managers do. They talk and listen to those who are intimate with roads. We could learn much. I certainly did when I chaired the Regional Telecommunication Commission.

6) Require the coordination of road construction with municipal governments and utilities. Create large cash penalties above restoration costs. Create a statewide restoration policy (like we did at the RTC) and require it be followed.

7) The Legislature is planning to study this problem. Any study committee should have “outsiders” to offer a fresh look at addressing problems and solutions. A fresh, non-political look needs to be used for transportation.

 

8) Farmers are believed to damage roads with their equipment. We had similar challenges when I chaired the Milwaukee River South Non-Point Pollution Commission. The DNR created “best methods” for construction companies, which I observed could cut construction cost by two to three days a month. This is quite a savings. We held workshops that were practical and to the point. We could do this for farmers through the DNR or the UW-Extension system.

9) Reform the political donation system. The brokerage industry limits contributions to $250 per candidate if a person can vote for the person. The firm cannot do business with any government entity if this rule is violated by any employee.

10) Protect small businesses when road construction is done. A project of a few weeks or a month might be acceptable, but longer projects destroy businesses.

11) Question why municipalities no longer work together for blacktop, for example. This was taken away in the first term of  Gov. Scott Walker. This could be cheaper and better for municipalities.

12) There is a famous article, “Marketing Myopia” written by Theodore Levitt. He asks companies to define what they actually are selling. To update his idea, as “What does MacDonald’s sell? Is it selling hamburgers or is it selling a standard food of a certain quality in a specific environment at the same price?” We need to ask ourselves what we are trying to accomplish. It is not named the Department of Road Building but the Department of Transportation.

13) Drop the union-busting aspect of contracts for building roads. It is a digression. Today’s labor market needs skilled labor for automated equipment.

Bob Chernow is a Milwaukee businessman who chaired both the Milwaukee River South Commission and the Regional Telecommunication Commission.

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