Highway agency has continuing contract problems, auditors find

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Cars travel near interstate highway construction.By Sam Smith

The Maryland State Highway Administration wrongfully authorized modifications and extensions to architectural and engineering contracts without the approval of the Board of Public Works, auditors have found. They also found that the highway agency is not providing proper justification for the board to approve maximum contract awards.

These findings are similar to findings in a previous report on SHA contracts.

In addition, the Office of Legislative Audits report released Tuesday said that required contractor performance benchmarks were not established for the Maryland SafeZones pilot program for highway work zone speed enforcement. Auditors say that the contractors’ speed monitoring system is not adequately collecting readable photographs as actual citation revenue is $850,000 below the contractors’ original estimate.

The SHA used unexpended funds from numerous architectural and engineering  contracts to fund projects that were not within the capacities of the individual contracts. Using the contract funds for outside projects without approval from the Board of Public Works violates state regulations.

Due to a similar finding in a special review a year ago, the SHA conducted a survey and found that $21.7 million was charged to 105 contracts for projects that were beyond the scope of the individual agreements

The SHA’s response to the finding states: “The Administration issued a memorandum on March 9, 2011 to all senior managers directing that all tasks issued under A&E contracts be evaluated to determine that all work performed under the contract is authorized as work contemplated by the contract.”

Administration authorized contract extensions without BPW approval

The administration also kept unspent contract authorizations by extending contract expiration dates without the board’s required approval. From August 2008 to June 2011, the SHA granted 291 extensions totalling $449 million. Auditors examined 10 extensions and found they ranged from one year to 18 months past the board approved expiration date.

“During our audit period we were advised by SHA management personnel that it was not SHA’s practice to submit A&E contract period extensions to the BPW for approval, as required by state regulations,” the audit report stated.
The highway administration responded by stating that due to the 2011 special review, additional approval paths were implemented in the department’s financial management system. A review process has been established ensuring that modifications will be submitted to the board.

No benchmarks established for work zone speed enforcement program

Although the administration’s contract for the Maryland SafeZone Program called for the establishment of benchmarks to evaluate the contractor’s performance, none were established. Auditors claim the benchmarks are a vital aspect in assessing the success of the program.

The success of the program is largely dependent on the system’s ability to accurately measure speed and collect identifiable license plate images regardless of the weather or operational conditions.

The program’s contract requires for 90% of violations to be captured and processed. According to SHA records, 133,620 violations were captured between October of 2009 and June of 2010, but 56% of those citations were not issued because they were labeled unacceptable due to “reliability and readability issues.”

The SHA said that that during the pilot phase of the program they became aware that the radar-based technology that is used on single lane roads was not suited for major highways. SHA claims that the finding doesn’t reflect the nature of rapidly changing technology and the fact that there are no national programs to compare to. The switch to laser-based technology has coincided with a rise in the capture rate in recent years.

“The pilot program allowed us to learn how this type of program worked and determine the most
appropriate performance specifications to be included in the RFP,” the agency response stated.