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FairfaxTransportationAudit ponders: Will VDOT be ready when winter arrives?

Audit ponders: Will VDOT be ready when winter arrives?

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A new state-government report has identified problems that have hobbled snow-removal efforts in recent years. But with a tight labor market, spiraling inflationary costs and other challenges, the question becomes: Can the Virginia Department of Transportation make the grade when Mother Nature starts tossing her snowballs at the region this coming winter?

The new performance audit of VDOT snow-removal efforts, conducted by the Office of the State Inspector General, found a number of problem areas, including transportation officials failing to have enough contractors under contract to address the most significant snow events.

“Without sufficient resources . . . major snowstorms have the potential to be crippling unless assistance from other parts of the state can fill the gaps,” noted the report, completed by the state’s inspector general, Michael Westfall.

“In the event of a major statewide storm, VDOT would not be able to keep up without hiring equipment at costly rates and potentially accepting contractor equipment when that equipment has not been inspected or properly insured,” Westfall wrote.

As a border state that frequently sees either feast or famine when it comes to winter snowfalls any given year, Virginia has to do the best it can under the circumstances, Westfall acknowledged.

“VDOT needs to find a balance between having sufficient resources and working with acceptable levels of risk,” he said (to which transportation officials might reply under their breath, “easier said than done”).

The audit suggested transportation officials consider borrowing state-government employees from other agencies who have commercial driver’s licenses and appropriate training, or providing VDOT personnel in non-snow-removal positions with the training to pitch in as needed.

In a response, VDOT’s leadership said it “agrees with the conditions observed and the recommendation as presented,” and planned to meet with staff from the inspector general’s office in coming months to find ways to move forward.

The impetus for the audit was a VDOT scandal that saw several Northern Virginia officials of the agency (plus contractors) sentenced to prison terms in 2018 for what prosecutors said was a five-year bribery scheme involving the award of $11 million in snow-removal contracts. (The investigation also revealed another issue involving white powdery stuff: cocaine distribution by and to some VDOT personnel.)

The Office of the State Inspector General planned to conduct the audit based on information compiled during the 2019-20 snow season, but a general paucity of snow across the commonwealth that winter gave little information. Attempting the audit during the COVID crisis of the winter of 2020-21 was seen as impractical, so efforts were held over to the winter of 2021-22.

As part of his findings, Westfall also noted concerns about VDOT’s follow-up with contractors to ensure the snow-removal equipment they use is what had been contracted for, and a lack of follow-through to ensure contractors carried proper insurance for the work. VDOT officials agreed to work to rectify deficiencies.

The report, issued in June, did not address the snow-removal meltdown on Interstate 95 in early January, which left thousands (including U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine) stuck in their vehicles for a protracted amount of time. A separate audit is being conducted on that incident, state officials said.

Snow-removal efforts are big business for VDOT. Last year, $211 million was budgeted just for Northern Virginia, with 2,500 state personnel and contractors doing the work using nearly 11,000 pieces of equipment, more than 700,000 tons of salt, sand and abrasives available, and more than 2.4 million gallons of liquid calcium chloride and salt brine at the ready across the local area.

Generally, the Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for snow-removal efforts in counties. Cities generally are responsible for maintenance of their roads, and in Arlington, the county government has operational control of secondary roads.

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