Top Alaska legislators have reached a broad, bipartisan agreement that the state's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is unaccountable and does not do what the Legislature tells it to.
One complaint: Projects approved and funded by the Legislature through the budget process aren't being built. Some have lagged for years, but are being particularly felt with the nation mired in a recession and Alaska struggling to improve the economy.
"My discontent with DOT is with the backlog of projects and the lack of transparency," said Sen. Majority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage.
Sen. Minority Leader Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, agreed.
"For a department of government to defy the wishes of the legislature is walking on dangerous ground," he said.
Bunde called DOT "one of the least responsive divisions of state government," and linked the attitude to the fact that most of the DOT budget comes from federal sources instead of state.
DOT officials dispute those claims, however, and say concern often comes from a "lack of understanding of the process," said Mary Siroky, the department's legislative liaison.
Siroky, Deputy Commissioner Frank Richards and other DOT officials are testifying before a host of committees, and trying to dispel legislative concerns.
"Legislators sometimes don't understand there's a lot that goes into a project prior to the first time you see a shovel of dirt moving," she said.
They department may face an uphill battle, and is facing similar concerns from top Republicans and Democrats in the House of Representatives as well.
In the past week, House Majority Leader Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan, complained about losing track of money when it went to the "giant monster DOT."
"There's a perception that our Department of Transportation has some magical powers after we appropriate, that the decisions aren't exactly the same or on time, ... as legislators want," Johansen said. "We've appropriated (money for) projects that have taken three, four or five years to get out on the street."
House Minority Leader Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, this week publicly recalled former Gov. Tony Knowles' reference to the "sovereign nation of DOT."
Siroky said the department may not have been doing as adequate a job of explaining to legislators how many years it can take to develop projects, including environmental impact studies, right-of-way purchases, utility location, engineering and bidding.
"It can, frankly, take years for those things to happen," Siroky said. "I think the Legislature and the public gets frustrated."
Deputy DOT Commissioner Frank Richards said sometimes the Legislature appropriates money for a specific project, but that isn't always enough to complete it.
Siroky said, hypothetically, that $20 million appropriated for a project based on an engineer's estimate may not be enough, and the project may cost $27 million when it is finally built.
"We try to see into the future, but we can't always see far enough," she said.
All the money appropriated remains in the state general fund until it is needed.
"Those dollars don't grow interest for us," Siroky said.
Many legislators, however, say the department is simply choosing when to follow or not follow state law.
"We appropriate funds for a particular project in Anchorage, and if DOT doesn't want to build it, they don't build it," said Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka.
Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Anchorage, said DOT has "cheerfully ignored" legislative instructions on projects. Control of DOT is a separation of powers issue, and the governor's office and attorney general need to ensure the law is followed, he said.
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