Again this construction season, the Montana Contractors’ Association (MCA) fielded calls from members disgruntled by various local governments and Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) maintenance crews “playing contractor,” employing what many construction professionals consider inefficient methods, excessive personnel, and lack of quality control and accountability.
One such complaint involved a city crew paving in a downtown area using single axle trucks, substandard traffic control, poor compaction and rough, uneven “completed” driving lanes. Another involved MDT’s “rut filling” operation that wouldn’t meet any of the agency’s own specifications for contracted work. Another call from an MCA member involved a request from MDT for the contractor to return to one of its recently completed projects to re-grind rumble strips and repaint on a stretch of highway. It seems MDT crews filled in the new rumble strips and covered the epoxy stripes.
As I walked up to the MCA office steps several weeks ago, I noticed one of our members, High Mark Traffic Services, painting an intersection a block down the street. I approached one guy on the sidewalk (who I assumed was an employee, but wasn’t actively working at the time) to introduce myself and talk about how the construction season was going. As it turned out, he wasn’t a High Mark employee — he was the MDT inspector on the project. Then, I glanced down the sidestreet and noticed a second MDT employee sitting in a state pickup. So, that means we had two MDT employees looking over the shoulders of four or five contractor employees as they worked on a pretty standard job. I’m not sure how that is efficient.
The MCA helped lead efforts to secure a fuel tax increase during the 2017 Legislative Session, which will result in substantial increases in funding for MDT and local governments to spend exclusively on roads, streets and bridges. Obviously, our motivation, aside from the obvious need to maintain and improve our transportation system, was to generate predictable, consistent funding for governments to award construction contracts to private companies. In fact, that was a key component of the MCA’s support and participation.
Taxpayers expect their fuel taxes to be spent efficiently and with accountability, regardless of what level of government is involved. The U.S. Congress is reluctant to raise federal fuel taxes for this very reason—taxpayers are not convinced of the need. The Montana legislature passed the state fuel tax increase with the caveat that a thorough audit be performed of MDT’s operations, which will include an analysis of privatization opportunities. The bill also included provisions requiring city and county governments to submit reports on how they spend their new allocation of money, so at least there is some level of transparency.
MCA leaders listened to an intriguing presentation in August from representatives of the Alberta Roadbuilders’ Association, about how that Canadian province systematically privatized virtually all aspects of highway design, construction and maintenance. Montana has a model on its northern border, demonstrating that private companies can, will, and do perform highway maintenance more efficiently than government.
We’ve heard for years from local and state governments that because of their “obligation” to plow snow in the winter, they need to keep that equipment, and thus the associated employees, busy the rest of the year. Our Alberta neighbors told us that is the single biggest efficiency they gained—better productivity from equipment—notably trucks. It worked so well at the provincial level, many local governments followed suit and signed maintenance contracts with the same companies doing the provincial work in their regions.
Governments are not entitled by statute or ordinance to perform construction services. They have assumed those roles by default, with taxpayers essentially ceding the authority to purchase equipment and hire employees rather than contract the work through competitive bidding.
Thankfully, the legislature recognized taxpayers were unwilling to raise fuel taxes without the assurance of better efficiency and accountability. The MCA will continue working with auditors, agency officials, and legislators toward the goal of spending taxpayer dollars wisely through competitively bid contracts that guarantee adherence to specifications and bonding for nonperformance. Please share your experiences, comments and suggestions with us.