SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Department of Transportation contractors incorrectly installed 109 signs on a state road in Tooele and another dozen unsafe signs on Bangerter Highway, according to a new legislative audit.
The Office of the Legislative Auditor General cited those mistakes as examples of UDOT needing to better oversee contractors and consultants on road projects.
"The sheer number of signs installed incorrectly on state Route 36 and the obviously dangerous signage on south Bangerter Highway point to failures in quality control," the report said.
Consulting engineers designed the sign placement incorrectly, the contractor installed them as designed, and UDOT either did not inspect them in time or incorrectly passed them off, the audit concluded.
UDOT is the subject of two legislative audits released Tuesday. One reviews the agency's performance and the other takes an in-depth look at its budget, which can reach $1 billion in years with large construction projects.
The audit found that because UDOT's bidding process only considers price and time, contractors with poor performance records have the same opportunity to win bids as high-quality firms. The agency has failed to hire two full-time performance auditors as the Legislature required 21 years ago.
Also, the department has used more expensive consultants the past eight years to do the work of vacant full-time jobs. A sampling of three positions showed consultants can cost three times more per hour than in-house staff. UDOT employs about 1,600 people, most of them in operations and maintenance.
"As the use of consultants and contracting increased, UDOT's quality assurance process will need to be reviewed to ensure projects meet specifications for quality and safety," the report said.
UDOT Executive Director Carlos Braceras agreed with most of the audits' findings, though he explained the road sign problems and justified the use of consultants in a written response.
"The organization will improve as a result of the work of the auditors," he told the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, which discussed the audits Tuesday.
According to the audit, the breakaway joints on the signposts on state Route 36 in Tooele were too far away from the road base. The post is designed to break off at the joint and avoid causing injury.
UDOT discovered the problem through its inspection process and the contractor fixed them at its own expense, Braceras said.
On the south end of Bangerter Highway, a dozen signs did not meet the 9-foot height requirement or the 12-foot required distance from the edge of the road, leading to safety concerns. An inattentive driver could have easily hit one of the signs with a late break for the exit at Redwood Road, according to the audit.
Braceras disagreed that the signs were unsafe but acknowledged the locations were not ideal. A driver would have had to make an unsafe and illegal maneuver to hit one, he said. Braceras said the sign at the exit was removed because it would interfere with snowplows.
The other signs, he said, were installed according to the plans. He said Bangerter Highway is a first of its kind in Utah because it has characteristics of arterials and interstates. UDOT is developing standard specifications for the unique road.
UDOT outsources 85 percent of its design projects and 65 percent of its construction projects.
Braceras said UDOT has hired consultants the past 15 years for specific jobs. He said they help full-time employees manage their workload, bring innovation and provide skills UDOT doesn't have.
While consultants cost more, they are often used in temporary roles. Braceras said that means during lulls in the workload, UDOT is not faced with having an inefficient, underused staff that runs the risk of losing theirs jobs.
"It doesn’t strike me as an egregious mismanagement of resources," Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, told the committee.
Braceras agreed with the report that UDOT would benefit from having two independent auditors. He said he is reassigning one employee and hiring another in the next few months to fill that role.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said he "sleeps better at night" knowing state agencies, not just UDOT, have independent auditors evaluating their performances.