Ross leads efficiency at DOT

Superior's former mayor is taking aim at waste in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Gov. Scott Walker appointed Secretary Dave Ross to take the lead of the department responsible for planning, designing, constructing and maintaining 11,...

Part of Belknap Street is ripped up on Monday morning near Catlin Avenue in Superior. DOT Secretary Dave Ross, former Superior mayor, is working to improve efficiency at the agency responsible for the project. Jed Carlson /

Superior's former mayor is taking aim at waste in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

Gov. Scott Walker appointed Secretary Dave Ross to take the lead of the department responsible for planning, designing, constructing and maintaining 11,758 miles of Wisconsin's state highways. Ross took over the department at the same time a Legislative Audit Bureau report revealed shortcomings at WisDOT.

"DOT is a very large organization," Ross said. "We have a $3.5 billion budget. We have about 3,500 employees. Approaching DOT, there were many opportunities to drive savings into our organizations."

Among the criticisms of the audit bureau report was a decline in the proportion of highways rated in good condition, incomplete cost estimates and estimates that didn't take inflation into consideration, resulting in higher-than-expected costs, and not consistently using performance measures to manage and improve operations.

Issues big and small have helped drive savings that is allowing the DOT to put more money into pavement, Ross said.


"One of the three key parts of what we've done, we're right-scoping projects, and in some cases, downsizing projects," Ross said. "'Right-scoping' means we're going to build exactly what we need to achieve safety and to improve the transportation infrastructure. We're giving people what they need without over designing."

Ross said that means building highways by staying within the footprint, look for safety improvements and expand only if warranted.

"The question I hear all over the state - and I have the privilege to travel the state extensively - 'Why did you make this sweep so long and why did you take up so much land to put in that intersection?'" Ross said.

Ross said one complaint that stemmed from his time as mayor of Superior is the amount of money the city had to invest in consulting fees for a project. It was a complaint he heard often from former Public Works Director Jeff Vito.

"Our emphasis now is to make sure we're spending as much of those dollars on concrete and asphalt, and not on all of the other dollars we spent to get to the project," Ross said. "Early on in my tenure at the DOT, we changed some ... we got rid of additional layers of consulting within the process to do the project."

Ross said that is helping to drive down costs, especially on local projects. Prior to that, he said, the complaint was the DOT would drive up costs by 20 to 35 percent.

"That's a significant amount of dollars," Ross said. "We've worked with the Wisconsin League of Municipalities, Wisconsin Counties Association and other organizations interested in making sure we don't drive up their costs in getting their project done in towns, villages, municipalities around the state."

He said they've also worked with the Wisconsin County Highways Association and county highway commissioners to determine the right amount of investment to get projects done.


Dan Fedderly, executive director of the Wisconsin County Highways Association, said he's been working with Ross on a number of initiatives that would reduce deliverable costs - planning, engineering and designing roads - that could increase the cost of a project by 35-45 percent when utilizing federal funds.

"One of the programs counties use on a fairly regular basis is the surface transportation program," Fedderly said. He said over the years, the oversight on the program has become overly burdensome.

Fedderly worked with Ross on the SWAP legislation that replaces federal dollars with state dollars to remove a layer of oversight that drives up costs, allowing the state and local government to work more closely and reducing the cost of deliverables to 10-15 percent. He said while state financed projects still require all the environmental permitting, there is an additional layer of permitting required when federal dollars are used.

"It doesn't mean you've circumvented oversight, but it does remove a layer," Fedderly said.

"We need to continue to invest in maintaining our roads before they get in such a condition that we have to rebuild it rather than just maintain that road surface," Ross said. "That's a key part of savings - not allowing roads to get beyond repair."

Ross credited the governor for increasing funding for the local roads and bridge programs to address.

Walker added $76 million to the budget for the local road program, and another $10 million for the bridge program.

"It's simply good because it isn't a cut," Fedderly said.


Fedderly said while that is a small increase for Wisconsin's 72 counties, he said the initiatives Ross is undertaking are helping. Still, he said, there needs to be a long-term, sustainable revenue source to fund local roads and state highways.

By adding money for local roads, and advancing project timelines, Ross said the result has also netted savings.

"Doing projects faster and in a more compact period of time, rather than stretching them out for, in some cases, decades, we're realizing some real significant savings," Ross said. "And also how we're designing our projects and where we're seeing savings - what we call let savings or bid savings, which was significant. The governor took that savings to advance 20 to 25 other projects around the state - all good news for Wisconsin drivers ... every dollar saved goes into more pavement and more concrete and better roads for Wisconsin."

What To Read Next