Transportation Scams and Bungling

Ten Tips for Finding Good Stories

Bill Krueger
The News & Observer
Raleigh, NC


1. Figure out who's getting access to the roads. Find the traffic engineers who are responsible for considering requests for curb cuts on major roads - requests from developers and business owners - and ask them if their recommendations have ever been overturned or ignored. Make sure to look at the project files.

2. Look for right-of-way scams. Most right-of-way deals aren't worth spending your time on, but check with the Federal Highway Administration on any right-of-way settlements they refused to sign off on. Chances are, there's something funny about the deal if the feds won't sign off. Ask to see the appraisals prepared for the department, and compare those amounts to the amount actually paid. In fact, ask to see the entire project file.

3. Find the slush funds. Talk to veteran transportation officials, politicians, advocacy groups to find out where the "discretionary" funds are, who controls them, and what they're used for. Get the records on how the money has been spent (ask if they have it in a computer database), and then compare them to the department's priorities. It's a sure bet that the two lists won't match up.

4. Taking the bite out of the watchdog. When you find the slush funds, take a look to see if a lot of the money is going to members of legislative oversight committees, or other legislators with power over the transportation department. Ask for any correspondence, or records of phone calls, from those legislators.

5. Are your roads being maintained? (Part one) Most states have goals, or standards, for resurfacing their roads. Find out what they are, and then find out how many miles the state is resurfacing each year. Then do the math. Is your state meeting its own goals? If not, why not? Talk to the maintenance engineers out in the field - they can tell you where the problems are.

6. Are your roads being maintained? (Part two) In North Carolina, the state Department of Transportation does periodic surveys of pavement conditions. When we checked, they had declined considerably over the last several years. What's the condition of the pavement in your state? Again, talk to those engineers out in the field.

7. Could that accident have been prevented? State transportation agencies spend a lot of money analyzing intersections and other potential danger spots on roads. If there is a bad accident on a road near you, check with the state's traffic safety engineers to see if they've studied that intersection. If they already knew it was dangerous, why didn't they fix it? Had they spent the money on a project that was a lower priority, but that had more political muscle behind it? Ask to see the project file.

8. Does it add up? Have you taken a good look - a really good look - at your state's road-building plan? Do the numbers add up? Is there enough revenue coming in to carry out the plan? Or, as we found in North Carolina, is the state making all sorts of promises that it can't possibly afford to keep?

9. If it's good for bizness... Find out if your state has a fund for industrial access roads. Such roads often amount to little more than private driveways for companies - paid for by taxpayers. Check the files, and find out who weighed in the company's behalf and whether the department followed its own rules for paying for such roads.

10. What is the board up to? In North Carolina, members of the transportation board have individual meetings with the department's top officers once a year to specify what projects they want built now and what projects they're willing to delay. Find out when those meetings take place, who takes part in them, and then ask for the minutes.