FORT WORTH -- It's an almost maddening riddle: The city has sat on $105 million in road repair funds, while many streets around town have cracked and crumbled, and traffic has grown more congested.
Of that money, more than $32 million was first approved by voters about seven years ago.
Why wasn't the money spent? City officials say they hung onto tens of millions in an attempt to grab federal stimulus money -- yet didn't know what work, if any, would qualify. In the end, almost all those projects failed to pan out, leaving neighborhood streets and thoroughfares broken despite voter approval of bonds to pay to fix them.
The explanations go on: inadequate debt capacity, a slowdown in projects due to the recession and a lack of accountability within the Transportation & Public Works Department. And, city officials say, the staff didn't push hard enough to get the job done.
"Reports coming through management were lax. Accountability was a major issue. The focus was not there," Councilman Jungus Jordan said.
With a new director in charge at the department, the city now has an 18-month timeline to fix roads, but Councilman Sal Espino said it will make only a small dent in what he calls the city's "transportation crisis." City Council members are expected to get an update on road projects at today's pre-council meeting.
No looking back
Most council members and Mayor Betsy Price express confidence that the new road plan will work but don't seem too interested in looking back at how the city got in this predicament.
"The bottom line is not how we got here, it's how we go forward," Price said. "If nothing else, it's a start in the right direction. We have a much stronger will on the council to make this happen."
If there hasn't been much public soul-searching by city officials on what went wrong, the staff is working to identify and correct problems.
But when the Star-Telegram requested information on road projects, employees couldn't show which contractor did what work, except by digging out paper files scattered throughout the department. Officials acknowledge that the department had been a confusing, jumbled mess. Consultants hired by the city found 14 critical areas in the department -- everything from the role of project managers and cost estimating to how to close projects. Only in recent months has the city put a management system in place.
"We had fragmented processes all over the city, and the departments did things all differently," said Doug Rademaker, deputy director of planning and development.
To this day, evaluating the performance of contractors is difficult because no central database exists for past road projects. Instead, the city relies on institutional memory of its project engineers.
Responsibility for some projects was split among several people, making it difficult to understand why some projects stalled.
"Because of some of the ways some of the processes were done, projects might have started in 2004, then been put on hold for some reason and then not [get] restarted until 2006," Rademaker said.
"There was no good record-keeping," he added.
Horatio Porter, the city's budget officer, said projects stalled for a variety of reasons. The city tried, and largely failed, to leverage bond dollars for small projects. So the money just sat in the bank.
Money from partnerships with other entities, such as the federal government, didn't materialize on schedule.
"And then, I don't think I'm speaking out of turn, but perhaps performance issues," Porter said. "We didn't push as hard as we could have in getting projects done."
In February, William Verkest retired as director of Transportation & Public Works. In April, Doug Wiersig took over, and now the city creates templates to guide projects.
"We've taken all the projects and said, 'Guys, what's the schedule, what's the projected cost, what's the issue?'" he said.
Those items have now been defined and program managers have to live and die by what he likened to a contract. If they don't, they'll be shown the door.
"We're here to provide resources for you to make sure you can deliver them," he said. "And unless it's something external that you can't control -- snafus -- 'Dude, you weren't delivering. Bye-bye.'"
Randle Harwood, director of planning and development, said the city has changed its approach to setting priorities and is now studying how it partners with the county, state and federal governments.
He said East First Street and Precinct Line Road are examples of projects that now will work since dollars are available and spending will get "transportation projects on the ground."
Price said streets now have the full attention of the council and the progress of road projects will be monitored closely.
"I think we should know if it's working in the next 90 days," Jordan said.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698
Darren Barbee, 817-390-7126