Friday, March 27, 2009

Privatization and Potholes

How's your car doing? I think one thing that will pick up the economy in the next six months is repairs to automobiles because of the massive number of potholes in this state. How did we get here and why? I'm back to my favorite presidential impostor, Ronald Reagan. Now Reagan really had nothing to do with the way things were run in Rhode Island, but he did set in motion the the privatization notion.

A few decades ago, the State Department of Transportation had strategically located road crews available that would fix potholes within a few days of their appearance. As the privatization craze moved forward, news crews and politicians jumped on any story of impropriety; you know, so and so fixed his own driveway on state time with state equipment; serious problems no doubt. Do you think for a moment that this does not go on with privatized services? You know; private folks fixing something that is not the state's responsibility, but charging the state anyway. Consequently, the State reduced it's contingent of DOT work crews and decided that the private sector would do it better.

Think of the bureaucracy. In days gone by, a pothole would appear and some politician would hear about it and complain to the DOT. There would be a crew out there that day fixing the road. What happens today? Well; we need time to define the problem, then we need to develop specifications for fixing the problem. Now; we need to have another agency of government approve those specifications. Now; we have to go out to bid, giving bidders ample time to prepare their bids. Now; we open the bids and hopefully go with the low bidder. Now; we have to write a contract. The contract has to be reviewed by another government entity, a group called lawyers. Now; changes to the contract have to be approved. But that's not all; today the state doesn't have enough engineers of their own to manage the projects. Now; we have to hire privatized help to watch over the privatized help. The same steps taken earlier to find a contractor need to be repeated. Eventually, contracts are awarded and by this time your car is ready for the dump. Not only that, cost overruns are considered to be a part of the game and tolerated.

Now in days gone by, we had some trained state employees that did a fairly adequate job. At least when they were employed, our potholes didn't grow to the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. This is an important consideration when managing road systems. Fix the problems when they are small. More importantly, the state had ready labor at it's fingertips to perform an untold number of additional tasks that; you guessed it, are now privatized. Snowplowing, street sweeping, road grading, bridge maintenance, brush and tree removal, line painting and the list goes on.

Now the State DOT still has crews that do some of this work, but nothing like it did 20 years ago. Have our roads gotten better? Has the state saved money? Ever notice how long it takes to complete road projects these days when the privatized crews start breaking ground. You have all seen it; projects that should take 3 months take 3 years.

The state is now throwing stimulus money on the years of neglect. The neglect can be tied directly to the reduction in state capabilities, not the weather. If you think that our roads are being maintained for less money today than 20 years ago; all things being equal, I have some land to sell you in Florida.


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