Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sen. Obenshain: Government should spend more wisely

From Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg)....

Times are tough, and we're all feeling the pinch. Services have been cut, revenue is down, and we're all being asked to do more with less. Unfortunately, the cost-cutting mentality that most of us have adopted hasn't quite made it to VDOT yet, where an analysis of the Department's own data reveals the systematic replacement of perfectly good equipment well before the end of its useful life – in some cases, before even one-fifth of targeted use.

Delegate Todd Gilbert and I wrote an open letter to Governor Kaine on this issue last week, but I wanted to bring these concerns to you as well.

According to their own records, VDOT auctioned off or otherwise disposed of equipment long before their own usage targets time and again. To give you just a glimpse of what's going on, the VDOT Equipment Division disposed of nine compressors in 2008 despite the fact that they have only been run, on average, for 1,146 hours, compared to an expected useful life of 6,000 hours. Similarly, eight skid steer loaders were auctioned or junked after having run for an average of 878 engine hours, far lower than the 2,000 hours listed in VDOT's own replacement criteria. Thirty-one mowers were disposed of, with replacement criteria set between 4,000 and 5,500 hours per unit; less than one-third of them exceeded 60% of the target.

The list goes on. Twenty-four wheel loaders got the axe with an average meter reading of 6,533 service hours compared to the 16,000 listed. Graders averaged about two-thirds the anticipated hours, three excavators and eight backhoes averaged roughly half the expected service hours, and one mobile crane, a 1998 model, was disposed of after a mere 206 engine hours. The Equipment Division's criteria suggest replacement after 12,000 hours. Any one piece of equipment can be an anomaly; when virtually every equipment class falls well short, however, something is clearly wrong.

Currently, VDOT takes a three-pronged approach in assessing when to replace existing equipment in its fleet, taking into consideration the equipment's age, utilization levels (meter readouts), and service costs incurred. Rather than using a composite measure, however, VDOT's own data suggests that reaching the threshold in any one of these categories triggers the sale or disposal of equipment, resulting in the liquidation of expensive equipment well before the end of the equipment's useful life as dictated by departmental utilization thresholds, and well before repair and servicing costs become untenable or cost-prohibitive.

Basically, once a piece of equipment is deemed old enough, it goes – no matter how many hours it's been used, how many miles it has on it, or how it's running.

I hold the seemingly novel view that equipment should be replaced when repairs become cost-prohibitive or purchasing new (or newer) equipment provides a clear cost savings – not simply when some arbitrary number of years in the fleet is exceeded.

I'm sure many cash-strapped families wouldn't mind trading in an old car or truck for a new one, but if the old one is safe and still running well, but just isn't as shiny and new as it once was, they're going to hold off on trading it in. It is not too much to ask that VDOT do the same.
It's irresponsible to dispose of perfectly good equipment just because it's a little old, and as long as equipment age governs these decisions, that's exactly what will keep happening. This is costing Virginia millions of dollars a year and it has to stop.

No private business that operated like this would last very long, yet VDOT continues to swap out old equipment just because it's old. I have news for VDOT: as long as everyone else is tightening their belts, we can't afford to replace equipment just to get that “new car scent.”

Now, VDOT doesn't quite agree with us, and has attempted to justify its policy when pressed by the Northern Virginia Daily. Their own data notwithstanding, VDOT insists that the vast majority of equipment that it disposes of or replaces is well past its service life -- and as proof of this, VDOT's spokesman cites equipment age ("The average age this past year was 16 years"), precisely what Del. Gilbert and I argue should not be the primary driver of the decision to remove a piece of equipment from VDOT's fleet.

VDOT's spokesman continues by noting that the statistics "don't tell you if a piece of equipment is damaged or needs significant repairs," which is true but misleading. This can explain the early disposal of a piece of equipment here or there, but when equipment is routinely swapped out at just a fraction of its estimated engine life, something is wrong.

The bottom line is that, excuses notwithstanding, no one in the private sector could operate like this and expect to survive. VDOT has long received a free pass -- but that has to end. That's why Delegate Gilbert and I support an outside audit of VDOT. Let's get this all out in the open and let independent auditors take a look at the books. But rather than just leaving this as Todd and I against VDOT, I'll leave the judgment to you.

Take a look at the table below (documentation here). You tell me: is this stewardship? Is this an appropriate use of resources while we're still struggling to keep the budget balanced? (click for larger image)

Creigh Deeds says that all options are on the table when it comes to funding transportation. Well, here's an idea: why don't we commit to spending a bit more wisely with the funds we have now?

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