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RI DOT's Michael Lewis on Newsmakers

Michael Lewis, the recently hired director of the state Department of Transportation, seems like a nice guy. But his answers to questions during a taping this morning of WPRI-WNAC's Newsmakers were generally straight out of PR 101.

While preparing yesterday for the show, I reviewed some of the recent controversies that have beset DOT, including the typist with the six-figure salary, and the Federal Highway Administration's demand that the state return $3.1 million due to problems with the I-195 project. Little did one know that another DOT bombshell would top the front of today's ProJo: 

PROVIDENCE — The state police said yesterday that Shire Corp., a major bridge contractor for the state Department of Transportation, has been illegally rifling through the DOT’s computer system for confidential information that could have helped it take advantage of the agency.

The police, who searched the company’s headquarters yesterday, said in court filings that information about other contractors’ projects and DOT internal documents and communications gave Shire a big advantage in dealing with the DOT, in part by helping it incur cost overruns to the company’s advantage.

Anyway, Lewis agreed that there is a problem with the culture at DOT. Declining to cite the root causes, he warned against using too broad a brush to characterize the department and its employees. If there is too cozy a relationship between DOT, engineers, and contractors, he said, he will move to correct it. He said DOT and its contractors will be held accountable.

My co-panelist, Arlene Violet, however, seemed less than satisfied with Lewis's response to questions about accountability regarding cost overruns on the Big Dig project and the snail-like pace of correcting at least one of Rhode Island's faulty bridges. Bridges are built faster in Siberia, she observed.

Lewis said Rhode Island's bridge problems have been caused by a piecemeal maintenance program, and that the state, like others across the US, faces a sharp gap in funding transit-related construction. Asked whether the state will consider adding tolls, as some have suggested for the Connecticut border, he said, "Everything's on the table."

Look at the bright side. With gas hovering around $4 a gallon, there may be a lot less wear and tear on Rhode Island's roads and bridges.

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