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State must add staffing on highways

US threatens to withhold $200 million

The Massachusetts Highway Department understaffed its construction department and let unqualified engineers and inspectors examine and test construction materials, according to federal highway officials, who are threatening to withhold more than $200 million in federal highway funds if the state doesn't hire hundreds of new workers.

Because staffing levels in the Highway Department's construction division were well below minimum federal standards, federal officials called on MassHighway to hire 268 workers -- a 50 percent increase in staffing for that division, according to a July report.

The Federal Highway Department report, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe, also calls for increased training for MassHighway employees who inspect construction materials.

During a two-year review of MassHighway that began in July 2001, federal officials said, 16 of 27 engineers or inspectors at one district office weren't qualified to perform their jobs, many of which involved safety or quality tests on highway construction materials.

Along with putting motorists at risk, the shoddy work will lead to roads and bridges wearing out faster, said the 86-page report, which did not cite specific projects.

Engineers design parts of projects and inspect sites to ensure that contractors adhere to specifications called for in the original plans. Inspectors are trained to sample and test the materials used on sites, such as checking the quality of the concrete.

MassHighway and federal officials said the two agencies are negotiating to decide how many new hires will be necessary to meet federal standards.

A few months into the two-year review, federal officials notified MassHighway that it would have to hire more engineers and inspectors. MassHighway officials said they estimated the construction and materials department needs 145 additional workers, and created a hiring plan that includes 100 new engineers, 83 of whom have been hired since May at annual salaries ranging from $35,000 to $40,000, according to agency spokesman Jon Carlisle.

Even if all 83 new engineers were hired at $35,000 a year, the hires so far would cost MassHighway about $2.9 million annually for salaries alone. Carlisle was unable to say what MassHighway budgeted to cover the hiring demanded by federal officials, which comes as the highway department's budget has been cut as a result of the state budget crisis.

"It is absolutely critical for the [state Highway Department] to achieve a staffing level sufficient to properly oversee the construction contracts," Stanley Gee, district administrator for the Federal Highway Administration, wrote in a July 8 letter to MassHighway Commissioner John Cogliano.

Federal officials also are requiring MassHighway to provide a list of supervisors and engineers for each new road or bridge project that receives federal funds.

The federal report said that because of a lack of state oversight, construction quality is dropping on some projects as opportunities for contractor fraud increase.

"The reductions of staffing over the years has caused a lack of what we see as proper oversight, which gives free rein to contractors and can lead to the waste and fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars," said Mary J. Richards, president of the Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists. About 1,200 members of the organization work at MassHighway.

According to the report, while the number of active MassHighway projects increased about 40 percent between 1988 and 2001, the number of engineers, inspectors, and other construction site personnel at the district level decreased by nearly 30 percent.

MassHighway has been unable to hire new employees for construction and materials staffing on a regular basis, according to the report, which blamed "funding and program issues beyond the control" of the department, such as state budget cuts and allocations.

Still, "a serious commitment must be made within MassHighway and by EOTC [Executive Office of Transportation and Communication] to hire on an annual basis the necessary number of personnel to fill construction and materials positions," said the report, which also called for better benefits and incentives to retain workers, including increasing pay scales to make them more competitive with the private sector.

The federal findings mirror a growing concern about the dwindling number of public employees overseeing state construction projects. Construction Industries of Massachusetts, a trade group, wrote to Governor Mitt Romney's transition team earlier this year that MassHighway staffing "was at a critical stage."

The highway department employed more than 4,000 in 1990, according to the organization's letter, but "today it is just over 1,800, with just 400 in the construction division."

Richards told a state Senate oversight committee earlier this year that the number of inspectors at MassHighway has dropped from about 80 in the late 1980s to about 35 earlier this year. The Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists currently has an estimated 1,500 grievances, most against MassHighway, over the hiring of unqualified personnel.

Richards said that while the Big Dig "is the poster child for what results from the failure to properly oversee highway construction projects . . . we find evidence of this in almost every highway project throughout the state."

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