Companies altered road test results

Companies altered road test results

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U.S Route 30

At Bliss, U.S. 30 departs from Interstate 84 to become the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway.

BOISE — Companies that are responsible for checking the quality of Idaho’s road materials have altered the results of their asphalt tests thousands of times, government documents show. Those changes may have allowed contractors that repair and build Idaho’s highway infrastructure to get bonus payments when they should have been penalized for substandard work — or even forced to tear up the asphalt and replace it.

For decades, Idaho has paid private contractors to repair and build the state’s vast system of highways, roads and bridges, the Idaho Statesman reported. They are trusted to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and to ensure the state’s infrastructure is built to last and is safe for drivers.

While roads are under construction, Idaho and other states require contractors to take samples of the asphalt they’re using and run it through a series of tests.

Those tests determine whether the asphalt is high quality and the right kind of material for that road. Can it withstand the winter snow and ice in northern Idaho? Can it withstand all the drivers and truckers who travel Interstate 84 in southern Idaho?

Front-line workers for several companies involved in road construction throughout Idaho were recorded in 2018 changing their test results before submitting the results to the state for payment, a Statesman analysis of government records found.

A Statesman analysis of four highway projects completed in 2018 found that Idaho paid contractors about $8 million, including about $190,000 in bonuses, for asphalt whose test results were altered dozens or hundreds of times.

Internal documents from the Idaho Transportation Department say such changes may have allowed construction companies to receive more money than the asphalt was worth.

For Idaho taxpayers, that would mean more funds went to private contracting firms and less went to other projects to fix potholes, strengthen highways and improve the state’s crumbling transportation network.

Putting Idaho’s roads in public hands

Idaho has relied since the late 1990s on asphalt testing to help determine how much it pays highway construction firms. And the state has largely trusted the private sector to run those asphalt tests — the contractors building the roads, and subcontractors who are allowed to work for the same companies they’re expected to keep honest.

One retired state transportation employee says he has long warned that conflicts of interest and Idaho’s shift to privatizing its road work was harmful, but that he wasn’t taken seriously. A former private-sector employee raised alarm about the integrity of Idaho’s road construction nearly 20 years ago, and a subsequent investigation in 2002 found other employees with similar concerns.

Idaho transportation officials boast that Idaho was a national leader in shifting to a system that has the private sector largely overseeing itself when it comes to road construction, allowing the state to cut back on its own transportation workforce. About 30 other states use a system like Idaho’s, according to ITD.

Concerns about the system’s integrity are now the subject of a federal investigation.

The investigation by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General and the FBI comes at a time when Idaho, like many other states, is struggling to pay for an increasing backlog of road construction projects — facing a projected $3.6 billion shortfall over the next 20 years.

The Idaho Transportation Department on Jan. 31 asked the Idaho Legislature’s budget committee to approve a budget that includes $488 million for road construction.

The concerns also come as Gov. Brad Little seeks to reduce government regulation in a state that has long touted itself as “business-friendly” when it comes to oversight.

“When we reduce the friction on entrepreneurs and businesses, good-paying jobs follow,” Little said in December, announcing that Idaho had become the least regulated state in the U.S.

‘Suspicious alterations’ in asphalt tests

The Idaho Statesman, which began investigating this issue in December, obtained copies of emails, Excel workbooks, PowerPoint presentations and handwritten records through public record requests to the Idaho Transportation Department.

By cross-referencing records and analyzing the data, the Statesman found several lab technicians changed their asphalt test results, making multiple changes to a single result. Those changes can affect contractor pay. The projects they were working on include road construction along Interstate 84 in southern Idaho, along U.S. Route 12 in North Idaho and on a busy stretch of Meridian Road.

The Statesman found cases of disciplinary action against workers who altered test results. They were rank-and-file employees whose job was to take pieces of asphalt and run complicated lab tests to make sure it wasn’t bad.

It wasn’t just one lab technician who was recorded changing test results — or even several lab technicians at one company. Several employees at different companies submitted test results that contained “suspicious alterations,” according to government documents and analysis by the Idaho Statesman.

The term “suspicious alterations” is used by researchers at Boise State University who are studying Idaho’s asphalt testing data for ITD. The term refers to test results that were changed, and where the changes couldn’t be explained as “plausible corrections.”

There are legitimate or innocent reasons to change a test result, such as making a typo, entering a number in the wrong place or running a test a second time but using the same form.

After excluding likely data-entry errors from their early tally last year, the researchers still found nearly 2,000 “suspicious alterations.”

The alterations don’t necessarily correspond with higher payment for contractors, either. In one set of asphalt tests that had many “suspicious alterations,” the contractor was docked pay for lower-than-desirable test results.

Records obtained by the Statesman suggest that altered test results in 2018 weren’t isolated to the labs hired by contractors building the roads. They bled into the state’s own oversight territory.

The state is responsible for spot-checking road contractors’ work to make sure it meets quality standards. ITD often hires those “quality assurance” tests out to private labs — whose tests also had suspicious alterations.

It is fairly common for state transportation departments in the U.S. to outsource their quality-assurance tests, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Most of Idaho’s tests are performed by private contractors, since the state cut back on resources it needed to run them in-house, said Bill Fogg, a senior technician who retired from ITD in 2016.

“In my opinion, especially towards the end (of my career) there, and I flat told management there ... ‘You guys have given the keys of the hen house right into the fox’s hands, because you privatized too much of this,’” Fogg told the Statesman in an interview in January.

“I think there are good companies out there, don’t get me wrong — good private companies,” he said. “But I also think there’s (a culture of) you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

Internal document: Idaho may have allowed ‘reject level’ road work

An internal Idaho Transportation Department document from fall 2018 explained how the test results were altered. Its title: “Impact of Changing Numbers.”

The document shows that a private company — hired to test asphalt on a 2018 highway project in southern Idaho — had submitted test results with several changes. The document estimated how much the changes might have cost the state.

Records obtained by the Statesman show that a lab technician on that project entered a test result for asphalt weight, then changed that result five times. Each change was timestamped, without the technician’s knowledge. What began as 2,289.1 grams was reported as 2,291.2 grams about seven minutes later.

The asphalt from that test went down on a stretch of Interstate 84 near Twin Falls.

The altered numbers affected how much the state paid, the “Impact of Changing Numbers” document says. Instead of docking the contractor $80,364 for subpar materials, the state gave the contractor an $11,320 bonus, it says.

The Statesman reached out to the company that did the test, Horrocks Engineers, to see if it could explain what happened. (The Statesman reached out to three other companies with altered test results as well, but they did not return calls.)

John Stone, an Idaho principal for Horrocks, said ITD had accused two of its technicians of submitting improper test results. He said Horrocks took the accusations seriously.

“It’s a question about our integrity as a company,” he said in an interview.

He said a dozen samples in question have since been re-tested with “reasonably” similar results to what was submitted to the state.

Stone suggested that the changes were due to technicians updating results as they ran tests — and the state giving them no guidance otherwise.

“You may be weighing stuff, and that weight might be bouncing around a bit, and you might look at that scale and ... 30 seconds later, it might read within a couple grams” difference, Stone said. “There were times ... our testers would look at the scale, and they would determine, ‘Oh, that changed,’ and they would look at the computer” and change the numbers they had entered previously.

The Statesman found differences between the paper records Horrocks kept for that test and the results it submitted to the state.

“There were inconsistencies, there’s no doubt about it,” Stone said. But, he said, “The reporting procedure was never really defined, never has been.”

The lab technician who ran those tests has since been suspended by the state from doing asphalt tests. He will get his certification back soon, Stone said.

“We made a business decision not to challenge” the suspension, Stone said. He said a second technician also was temporarily suspended over similar allegations.

Asked whether he thinks there are problems with Idaho’s system, Stone said he could only speak on behalf of Horrocks, but, “I have no doubt that the tests that we reported were accurate.”

‘Impact of changing numbers’

The Idaho Transportation Department told the Statesman this month that the “Impact of Changing Numbers” document based on the Horrocks test of I-84 asphalt was a “draft” and “only for internal staff discussion and never presented outside the department.”

The Statesman reviewed test records to independently confirm some of the information in the document. One important piece of data couldn’t be confirmed.

The Idaho Transportation Department at first agreed to arrange an interview between the Statesman and a department expert who could answer highly technical questions about the document and others, and about records they relied upon. But the department later changed its mind, declining multiple requests for a fact-checking interview.

“The department is determined not to interfere with (the federal) investigation and believes that any additional discussion of the documents provided in the public records request could result in unintended consequences to the OIG investigation,” ITD said in a statement. “The department remains willing to discuss its ongoing efforts to strengthen and improve its quality assurance/quality control process for highway asphalt testing and acceptance. ITD will wait for the OIG to conclude its investigation before making any further statements related to the investigation.”

Questions from the Statesman about the “Impact of Changing Numbers” document prompted ITD to review its findings, spokesman Vincent Trimboli said in an email. That review found “the draft document overstates the magnitude of difference” caused by altered test results.

“While the document demonstrates that inconsistencies could have an impact, it should not be relied upon for quantifying the inconsistencies,” Trimboli said.

The document suggested that altered test results would have increased the payment to the contractor by $91,684, for one piece of that project. Trimboli didn’t say how much of an overstatement that was.

The batch analyzed in that document was one of 50 batches in that project. ITD ultimately paid the contractor about $9.4 million for the asphalt in that project, including about $140,000 quality bonus, state records show.

The document also warns that the state was paying contractors bonuses for “quality material” but receiving “failing or near failing material,” and that “reject level material is being left on public roads.”

Dave Kuisti, head of ITD’s division of engineering products and plans, cautioned against drawing that conclusion about the quality of the asphalt.

The Statesman requested an interview with ITD Director Brian Ness. A spokesman instead provided a statement from Ness.

“It is the core mission of Idaho Transportation Department to provide the safest roads, ensure mobility, and support economic opportunity. The condition of our roads and bridges is of the utmost importance in delivering the services ITD provides every citizen in Idaho,” Ness said in the emailed statement.

Ness said that 91% of Idaho’s pavements are in good or fair condition, exceeding the state’s goal of 80%.

“Idaho benefits from the highly skilled private contractors who build our highways in a competitive environment that promotes cost effectiveness and efficiency,” he said. “This innovative spirit and the willingness to continuously improve is reflected in the high quality, nationally recognized and award winning services we provide to every user of Idaho’s transportation system.”

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