CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two longtime state Highways district engineers had been advising the state already on secondary roads priorities when they were the low bidders on a consulting contract last week.
The governor’s general counsel, Brian Abraham, acknowledged that a consulting contract is a way to keep the combined expertise of James “Rusty” Roten and Thomas Badgett.
“We think we’ve got the two people who can help DOH move forward,” Abraham said this morning in a telephone interview. “We’ve got issues with our secondary roads.
“They’re not going to be the guys building bridges and designing bridges. They’re going to work with our county supervisors, district engineers and identify what needs to be done on a county basis.”
Roten is a former Highways engineer/manager for District 3, based in Parkersburg. Badgett, who had been the agency’s longest serving district engineer, is a former acting Highways engineer/manager for District 6 in Moundsville.
The two had been providing that kind of guidance after retiring from long careers with the Department of Highways, Abraham said.
Earlier this year, the two maxed out what they could earn post-retirement, Abraham said today.
“That time had reached a conclusion,” he said. “They would not be able to provide more service to DOH. So the only way lawyers determined to move forward was to put out for consultants.”
So a consulting contract went to bid last week with a firm owned by Roten and Badgett, TB&RR, as the lowest of the four bidders. Their bid for the 150-day consulting contract is valued at $199,050.
Abraham said any of the other companies could have wound up as the low bidder.
“That was a risk that they took on and quite frankly so did DOH,” Abraham said. “It was all handled above board.”
Others have been critical of how the bid was shaped.
“The bid was basically written for that construction company,” said Senator Randy Smith, R-Tucker. “I’ll tell you what. It stinks to high heaven.”
The bid for a secondary roads consulting job was first reported by The Charleston Gazette-Mail.
As the newspaper noted, the request for quotation was tailored fairly narrowly.
The specifications called for a minimum of two employees with at least 15 years experience and “extensive knowledge of the Highways department management structure and operations; Highways personnel needs’ budgeting and project management; governmental and legislative affairs; knowledge of equipment used for highways maintenance activities, and private sector contractors for highways maintenance.”
The other bidders were: Inca Roads of Salem, W.Va, at $249,750; Ascent Consulting and Engineering of Clarksburg at $264,600 and S&ME Inc. of Raleigh North Carolina at $600,000.
Abraham said some observers have questioned why the Highways department needs consultants to oversee how to handle secondary roads.
He said that’s not the case; what’s needed is help setting priorities for staffing and equipment at the local level.
“That’s not what they’re doing,” he said. “Their job is to coordinate between DOH and district engineers and county supervisors. They’re not telling us how to design roads or fix roads, we know how to do that.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice fired state Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, saying the state needs to renew its focus on secondary roads.
Abraham said Roten and Badgett got involved shortly after that to try to direct that focus.
“Knowing their experiencing in having handled maintenance projects at the county level, DOH was directed to bring them on to help bring focus to special projects,” Abraham said.
“So as we identified issues from time to time where people called in to say ‘This is a problem, that’s a problem,’ they were dispatched to consult on how to deal with it on a county level.”
Much of that, he said, involved the allocation of resources.
“As well as revamping of the secondary roads maintenance program, they have been instrumental on on making recommendations on the amount of employees and equipment needed on that program.”
Early this month, Governor Justice announced the addition of nearly 280 machines and vehicles to be distributed for highways work around the state.
The equipment includes dozens of tandem and single-axle dump trucks, mowers, several Gradall hydraulic excavators and more.
“Look around, for crying out loud, it is truly unbelievable,” Justice said while surrounded by equipment.
Asked today about the consultants, Justice said he is pleased by the progress in the Highways department.
“I don’t know all the interactions of the consultants, but I can tell you they’re doing an incredible job,” he said. “Let’s just think of what they’re doing. At the end of the day we’re doing more for highways right now in the state of West Virginia than has ever been done, period, the end.
“So if they hire some consultant to make the job and make everything work better, more power to ’em.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, on MetroNews “Talkline,” acknowledged that the Justice administration is making efforts to improve West Virginia roads. But he said the problems are far from solved.
“I think they’re responding to the pressure that’s been put on by the public that’s just the complete outrage over the conditions of these roads,” Carmichael said.
“I think they’re responding. I’m not sure they have it within their ability with the people they have in place and so forth to professionally, competently in a world class manner deliver a world class transportation system. So I’m concerned about it.”
Senator Smith, a vocal advocate of a highways bill during the regular legislative session, has been critical of the progress this summer. He questioned why consultants are necessary.
He was critical of the decision to hire longtime Justice associate Byrd White as the state Transportation Secretary. White does not have the required engineering degree to be Highways commissioner. That job went to longtime Highways employee Jimmy Wriston.
“This was brought on by the governor appointing a DOT secretary who wasn’t qualified to be a DOH Secretary,” Smith said. Why didn’t he just hire somebody who was qualified to do that job?
“These guys might be good engineers. They might be some of the best around. But they were already working for the Department of Highways. Why didn’t we fix the roads then?
“It’s not rocket science. This is for secondary roads and you either put it out for contract and pave it or you patch it. With all the engineers we have, I can’t see why we’re hiring a consulting firm.”
Smith said more rank-and-file employees in Highways would be more valuable than consultants.
“We know what the problem is. We need some boots on the ground. We’ve got enough finders. We need fixers now,” he said.
“I honestly believe they’ve already got the expertise in the Department of Highways. They just won’t use it.”
Woody Thrasher, a former Commerce secretary now running for governor against Justice in the Republican primary, was critical today of the hiring of the consultants.
He suggested it’s an indication that the Highways agency isn’t adequately prepared for the work ahead of it.
“It’s a kneejerk reaction in my opinion,” Thrasher said this morning on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “Do we really need to go to two consultants to do the work that should be handled internally?”
Thrasher, who was forced out last year by the governor, blamed Justice for not being on top of secondary roads from Day 1. He suggested the governor doesn’t have a sustainable highways plan.
He said the hiring of the two consultants might work but described it as reactionary.
“It will probably produce some good results but it’s a shame where we don’t have a functioning system and we have to call people back in from the retired sector.”
Highways Commissioner Wriston called “Talkline” to take issue with Thrasher’s comments.
“We do have a plan as far as hiring folks. I’m going to hire anybody who can help me,” Wriston said.
Wriston contended that the Department of Highways is improving and that the veteran engineers will help in their consulting role.
“We’ve turned the corner here with getting this culture where it needs to be in Highways,” he said.
“These guys are going to help me do a lot of quality control to get things uniform so that every crew leader is reporting the mileage and the tonnage of pavement in the same manner so I can feed that information into our system and that our system puts that information out so we are totally accountable so everyone can see when we put a dollar in a highway where it goes.”