Raleigh, N.C. — Former Department of Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett says he's proud of the state agency's accomplishments over the past eight years, despite a number of setbacks and challenges it now faces.
"DOT is in the best condition it has ever been in its 75-year history. Our improvements over the past eight years are manyfold," said Tippett, who served eight years under former Gov. Mike Easley.
Criticized in recent years for its inefficiency and questionable planning, the DOT faced restructuring last year when Tippett realigned all seven divisions of the department to make it more strategic, accountable, efficient and effective.
"We had a lot of button-down-collared employees, who had button-down minds, in my opinion, and we opened the process up in the department," Tippett said. "We're delivering our products more efficiently, which results in less expense."
The DOT came under intense scrutiny four years ago following a botched paving job on a 10.6-mile stretch of Interstate 40 in Durham County. That cost the department nearly $22 million to fix and inconvenienced drivers again for months.
"You have the largest concrete contractor in the United States during the job. Your expectation of the level of service is the best," Tippett said. "The error that was made should have been picked up by the contractor."
"And then, the inspection process was flawed. The people doing the inspection, in my opinion, did not do the job for which they were hired."
The concrete contractor, Granite Construction, of Watsonsville, Calif., ultimately paid some concessions on the project, but the contract engineering firm that inspected the first job never did.
As a result of that project, the DOT spent $3.6 million for international management consultant McKinsey & Co. to evaluate the agency. McKinsey's findings and recommendations led to the department's restructuring.
"The change is now part of the Department Transportation to improve processes. And probably, that will be the longest-lasting impact of my administration," Tippett said.
The DOT has been plagued by other problems under Tippett's administration.
In 2007, it eliminated one of two collector lanes for motorists planning to exit westbound Interstate 540 to westbound Interstate 40, creating long backups during morning commutes.
"Problems such as the 540 ramp are an evolution of the popularity of the region – the growth of the region," Tippett said. "When that project was designed, one ramp, one lane, was very adequate."
"This is construction, and it's a plan that is based upon known circumstances of the time," he added.
Most recently, the DOT announced it could cost up to $22 million to repave an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 795, which runs from Wilson to Goldsboro, to repair a problem that was not caught until four months after a 12-month warranty on the project had expired.
"A process failed. It was a formula for a pavement that simply did not work," Tippett said. "It worked in many projects throughout the state, and on this particular project, it failed."
Tippett said that despite these problems, he thinks the department functions well, considering the service it provides to the 9 million people in North Carolina.
"I think those who pay for the infrastructure are entitled to the best level of service," he said. "I think the expectation of being perfect is probably unreasonable."
Challenges still await the DOT, Tippett said, with its greatest one being to pay for the state's transportation infrastructure to accommodate a growing population.
In the current economic environment, the department has already cut 75 percent of all of its projects and all major projects in an effort to cut spending.
"If we're going to accommodate new growth, new people coming in the state, we have to figure out a plan to deliver transportation services," Tippett said. "Currently, the plan in place does not do that because the revenues we're collecting do not even come near what we need to deliver the service."
In the past six years, inflation has cut in half the number of projects the DOT can deliver, he said.
"If you've got a growing economy, a growing state, a growing population, you need to be doing a job and a half to accommodate new growth, he said."But if you're reducing your budget to only do half a job, there's a clash."
For North Carolina to have the infrastructure it needs, Tippett said he believes people will need to decide if they want to pay for it. A long-term solution, he believes is a fee based on the number of miles someone drives.
"The miles-used tax is the ultimate solution," Tippett said. "There is no justification in the world for a more fuel-efficient car or hybrid car not to contribute to infrastructure. That is foolish, in my opinion." Current funding comes in part from the tax on motor fuels, which would fall if cars were more fuel-efficient.
In the short-term, meanwhile, a state gas tax of more than $2 a gallon, like in Europe, could be the solution. The tax in North Carolina, right now, is capped at 49 cents.
"I will tell you, North Carolina will have to adopt the attitude of paying for what they expect, which means gas taxes mirror $2.50," he said. "It will not happen in 2009 or 2011, but I bet it will come."