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Big Dig’s Lewis Takes Over for RIDOT Director Williams

Tue May 27, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla

Michael Lewis, who took over the $15 billion Big Dig Project in the midst of massive delays and cost overruns, recently succeeded outgoing RIDOT Director Jerome Williams, who has become the new director of the Department of Administration.

The Right People

“Over the next three years, Rhode Island will be challenged to continue the state government efficiency reforms we’ve already started and to continue rebuilding the state’s highways and bridges,” Carcieri said. “Jerry Williams and Mike Lewis are the right people to help us tackle those challenges.”

Williams was appointed DOT director in December 2006, replacing James R. Capaldi. Prior to this, he served as executive director of the Department of Administration from 2003 to 2007 and as deputy director from 1986 to 1994.

Under Williams’s leadership, RIDOT reduced overtime by $2 million, consolidated RIDOT’s Transportation Management Center and Maintenance’s dispatch services into one 24-hour operation saving $500,000 annually and streamlined winter maintenance operations, saving the state $2.7 million.

It also opened the first section of the estimated $610 million Iway project, which relocates a highway bridge connecting Route 195 to Route 95 through downtown Providence. Williams also opened the new Berkeley-Martin Bridges, reopened the Blackstone River Bikeway and created a customer service office.

“During the last year, Jerry Williams has worked extensively to institute better management controls at the Department of Transportation,” Carcieri said. “He has value-engineered a number of projects and renegotiated contracts saving over $40 million for taxpayers. He also eliminated a projected $5 million operating departmental deficit last year through effective management. He has reformed the contracting process. And he has kept several major highway projects — including the I-195 relocation project — moving forward on schedule. In short, Jerry has served with success, honor and distinction.”

Michael Lewis — Up to the Challenge

Since 1992, DOT nominee Michael Lewis has worked on the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (The Big Dig) at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, rising to the position of project director in 2000. He assumed control after cost overruns were identified, but carried the project to successful completion nonetheless. Prior to this, from 1984 to 1992, he served as an engineer at the Massachusetts Highway Department.

“As the project director of the Big Dig — the largest and most complicated transportation project in American history — Mike Lewis has the talent and the experience necessary to help Rhode Island maintain and improve the state’s system of highways and bridges,” said Carcieri. “Rhode Island’s major highways and bridges will require serious rehabilitation in the coming years. We’ve already seen signs of that in the I-95 bridge in Pawtucket [which was shut down to heavy trucks last year]. Unfortunately, most of Rhode Island’s other bridges were built at the same time.

“Rebuilding Rhode Island’s transportation infrastructure will be a massive undertaking for our little state,” Carcieri said. “To succeed, we need someone with experience dealing with challenges of that magnitude. I can think of no one better than Mike Lewis, who managed to move the Big Dig from disarray to completion in seven years. His talent is highly praised by the Federal Highway Administration and I believe he will do an excellent job making sure our roads and bridges are safe and sturdy for decades to come.”

Williams’s Way

Williams made the transition to the directorship of the Department of Administration (DOA) in late March and early April. Williams had been RIDOT’s director since January 2007 and, under his leadership, RIDOT had many accomplishments.

“I have been part of a dedicated team,” said Williams. “The people of DOT work hard in many cases day and night to ensure that Rhode Island’s transportation needs are met. I am going to miss being a part of the everyday activities here.”

During Williams’ tenure he and the RIDOT group oversaw a reduction of federal receivables of $9.8 million in Fiscal Year 2007 from the previous fiscal year. This allows federal highway dollars to come into the state faster.

Less than six months after Williams took the position, RIDOT not only eliminated $5 million deficit, but ended the fiscal year with a gross surplus of $5.4 million. RIDOT completely paid off a $4.7 million deficit from years prior.

Williams and his team turned around a qualified audit opinion to an unqualified audit opinion and eliminated prior audit findings. He analyzed highway lighting expenses, resulting in a credit from National Grid of $290,000. He also reduced overtime in 2007 versus 2006 by $2.5 million.

On the Warwick Intermodal Train Station project, he oversaw the value engineering analysis that resulted in a projected cost savings of $15 to $17 million. Value engineering conducted on the Sakonnet River Bridge resulted in a project cost savings of $40 million.

“One of my original objectives was to use our limited resources wisely. These value engineering initiatives enable us to do so,” said Williams. “The funds saved on these projects can be utilized in the future on other critical infrastructure projects.”

Under Williams, RIDOT brought all bridge inspections up to date and took immediate action based on those inspections. For example, the Peace Dale Stone Arch Bridge was closed on Aug. 1, 2007, due to deterioration. Detours were established, repairs were made and the bridge reopened two weeks earlier than originally anticipated on Oct. 6.

Williams and RIDOT also opened the second phase of the Northwest Bike Trail/Fred Lippitt Woonasquatucket River Greenway and opened the Blackstone River Bikeway.

If Williams sings an exit song, it could be “I did it IWAY.”

Concrete Woes

However, the transition from Williams to Lewis comes during a difficult month for RIDOT; and it must give Lewis a familiar headache, given the concrete contracting scandal that rocked the Big Dig during his tenure.

The federal government ordered that Rhode Island repay $3.1 million, because it said the transportation department did not adequately test concrete used on the Iway project. It cited the state for failing to test random samples of concrete and for failing to enforce penalties on contractors who supplied substandard concrete.

Williams told The Providence Journal newspaper that the concrete is strong enough to carry traffic and there is no safety issue for motorists.

“All of the concrete is structurally adequate and fulfills the needs of the bridge to federal standards,” Williams said in a statement. “The concrete is safe — this is not a safety issue.”

The FHWA agreed, issuing its own statement saying, “All of the concrete is structurally adequate and fulfills the needs of the bridge to federal standards. Public safety is not compromised.”

Williams acknowledged publicly on March 5 that the agency failed to meet federal standards, but said the problems occurred in 2005, 2006 and part of 2007 and have since been corrected.

Williams added that the department might have to delay certain highway projects to repay the Federal Highway Administration, but wouldn’t identify them.

The FHWA is seeking reimbursement for more than 3,000 cu. yd. of concrete supplied under four contracts, including the contract for the arch bridge carrying traffic across the Providence River. It also cited a lack of inspection on this project. The agency found $3.9 million worth of concrete ineligible for reimbursement; the federal share of that, which it wants back from the state, came to $3.1 million.

The $610 million I-195 relocation project was mostly paid for with federal highway funds. Most of the project is still under construction, but two contracts pertain to the first completed section — the stretch carrying northbound traffic from Route 95 across the new bridge to the existing 195 eastbound. This stretch was opened in November.

The FHWA’s demand was made in a letter to Williams dated Feb. 27. Word of this demand spread as Williams prepared to present the DOT’s budget for the next fiscal year to the House Finance Committee on March 5.

Williams began by presenting good news — he had turned the department’s $5-million budget deficit this year into a surplus and would maintain a balanced budget next fiscal year. CEG

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