DOT still paying off ‘Fast Forward' cost overruns

The cash-strapped state Department of Transportation must set aside $75 million in its $1.8 billion budget this year to pay for cost overruns on projects it rushed to bid during the flush years of the construction boom, the agency’s board learned in a briefing Wednesday.

At the time it approved the projects, the DOT was under pressure to implement Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Fast Forward program, which tried to squeeze 18 years of transportation projects into six years.

“During that program we [bid out] some projects we shouldn’t have,” said Gerald Ross, DOT’s deputy commissioner and chief engineer. “They weren’t ready . . . You pay the price in [change orders].”

The state’s transportation planning director, Todd Long, who worked at DOT then and was appointed by the governor to his current post, said there was pressure to move fast.

“It was everybody trying to get work out the door,” Long said. “It’s called Fast Forward for a reason.”

Ross said DOT has new measures in place to ensure such “excessive” overruns won’t happen again.

Board member David Doss was chairman during part of that time and in board meetings aggressively pushed the staff to work faster.

“Remember the atmosphere we were working in at the time,” he said, saying legislators complained DOT didn’t get projects out fast enough and that it had money it wasn’t spending. “The board was trying very hard to be responsive,” he said.

The $75 million is one payment of several. As of 2008, said Angela Whitworth, DOT’s director of finance, the overruns added up to about $250 million, but DOT has been paid them down to about $158 million. The agency plans to set aside $50 million in the next fiscal year and $25 million the year after that.

DOT is also paying $185 million annually in debt service for the original cost of the projects, according to DOT officials. Last year the agency spent $1 billion on road projects.