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Keller @ Large: Audit Finds $20 Million Wasted On Veterans Memorial Bridge Project

CBS Boston logoCBS Boston 5/14/2019 Syndicated Local – CBS Boston
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BOSTON (CBS) – Massachusetts is in the midst of a $2 billion push to repair or replace crumbling bridges, with an emphasis on getting the work done quickly. But sometimes, haste makes waste.

With pomp, ceremony and a glossy video, state officials celebrated the 2011 re-opening of the Veterans Memorial Bridge between Fall River and Somerset. The price tag – $290 million.

But an audit of the job years later by state Inspector General Glenn Cunha found a substantial chunk of that money was squandered in what the IG calls “definitely a case of waste… a real bad case of lack of contract management.”

The audit found the state paid a firm $7 million to design the bridge, but later shelled out another $9.2 million to fix problems with the design – even though the contract with that firm expressly released the state from any obligation to pay for those costly errors.

Another $7.4 million was paid to a construction contractor to fix mistakes made by that design firm, but the state never sought any reimbursement from them.

“You’ve got your superiors saying ‘let’s get this thing done on time,’ and the easiest way is to just placate the contractor,” Cunha told WBZ-TV.

Even though the bridge plans called for steel beams to be left unpainted, the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) spent more than $932,000 to paint them anyway.

“Was that like being sold the fancy wheel covers on a new car on your way out of the showroom?” we asked Cunha. “I wasn’t there but I’d say that’s probably a good analogy,” he replied.

And the agency dropped $475,000 for three natural gas generators before learning they couldn’t use them due to design errors. The IG’s investigators found the costly hardware languishing in storage.

All told, the audit documents at least $20 million in flagrant waste.

How did it happen?

“People who work at MassDOT allowing some things to get past them without asking questions, without holding people accountable,” says Cunha.

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The Veterans Memorial Bridge between Fall River and Somerset. (WBZ-TV)

MassDOT officials – most of whom weren’t around when this project was built – declined an on-camera interview, but sent us a detailed statement about steps they’ve taken to prevent waste like this, including “better scrutiny over consulting contracts to avoid unnecessary cost overruns.”

Here’s their accompanying statement in full:

“The Veterans Memorial Bridge project was designed in 1998 and construction was started in 2006 by the Mass Highway Department, the predecessor to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). The project became substantially complete and was opened to traffic in 2011. Many of the issues identified in the Office of the Inspector General’s Report were addressed by new policies and procedures that were implemented in 2009 with the creation of MassDOT. MassDOT continues to evaluate our program to ensure the delivery of transparent, cost-effective transportation projects across the commonwealth. We thank the Office of the Inspector General for their work and we will evaluate their recommendations for opportunities to incorporate improvements into our project process. Some recommendations have been superseded by new policies and procedures that were streamlined since 2009 with the creation of MassDOT.”

But the IG vows continued vigilance, and with good reason. If not for a citizen tip to his office years after completion of the bridge project, we might never have known about the millions of your tax dollars wasted along the way.

Speaking of tips, it was a viewer’s tip that drew our attention to this previously unreported story. If you see a use of your tax dollars, major or minor, that makes you think “what a waste,” tell me about it with a confidential email at keller@wbztv.com, or flag me on Twitter, @kelleratlarge.

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