FOX 11 Investigates: Bridge projects delayed, costs rise

Plans to rebuild this bridge on County Highway M over the Suamico River are being delayed due to state funding issues, according to Brown County's highway commissioner/public works director. (WLUK/Todd Berry)

(WLUK) -- Several bridges in Northeast Wisconsin are scheduled to be rebuilt. But FOX 11 Investigates has found some projects are being delayed as much as three years. Others could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more than expected.

A recent state audit found the original estimates for some state highway projects were way off, costing taxpayers millions. A similar situation is happening with some local bridge projects.

"It's way past time for this one to be replaced," Brown County highway commissioner/public works director Paul Fontecchio said.

FOX 11 Investigates met Fontecchio at a bridge on County Highway ZZ south of De Pere.

"This bridge is tough shape. It's still structurally sound for vehicular traffic. But the outside edge is in tough shape," Fontecchio said.

The bridge is one of five bridges the county had planned to replace next year. But Fontecchio says those plans have to change.

"We met with (the Wisconsin Department of Transportation) on Jan. 12," Fontecchio said. "They informed us that the five bridges that we had in the program were $1.6 million over budget."

Fontecchio soon found Brown County was not alone.

"It wasn't until we started talking to other municipalities, other counties that we realized this isn't just a Brown County phenomenon. This is happening all across the state," Fontecchio said.

"We're getting caught up in the state problems a little bit," Ziegelbauer said.

Ziegelbauer says the Manitowoc County had planned to rebuild about a dozen bridges next year. That was until they found out they would be costing a lot more than expected.

"The difference is on the local dime. And that's where the problem is," he said.

Why are these projects going to cost so much more than planned? FOX 11 Investigates wanted to ask the DOT about that but the agency would not provide anyone for an on-camera interview.

When asked about his initial reaction after being told the bridges were $1.6 million over, Fontecchio replied, "My initial reaction was, oh man, I've never been that far off on an estimate before so how can that be?"

Fontecchio says he wasn't off. He says the estimates are put together with guidance from the DOT and an "estimating tool" provided by the DOT.

He says the DOT told him the "...estimating tool..." "...did not adequately estimate..." the costs of the projects.

While no one from the DOT would talk on camera, in an email to FOX 11, a spokesperson explained the DOT "...has had difficulty in accurately projecting costs for projects at all levels."

And the agency is "...currently undergoing a complete re-evaluation of all projects..."

"I'm troubled by it. Very troubled by it," said State Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez). Cowles is the co-chair of the State Audit Committee.

While the recent audit only covered the highway program, Cowles says the state may want to take a closer look at the bridge program.

"That may be something we would do at some point," Cowles said.

In the meantime, local governments are scaling back some projects and delaying others.

"We did shrink the size and footprint as much as we could but Brown County is going to be on hook easily for $900,000 to $1 million," Fontecchio said.

Fontecchio says the bridge on County Highway M near Suamico was supposed to be rebuilt next year. But now, it will be delayed three years. He says the money that was set aside for it will be used to pay for some of the shortfalls on the other four bridges.

"That bridge was the least-worst out of the five so that was the one we picked to push back. We'll be funding that out of Brown County," Fontecchio said.

In Manitowoc County, Ziegelbauer says a couple of small bridge projects will be delayed.

Others, like the bridge on County Highway R scheduled for 2019 will stay on track. But Manitowoc County taxpayers may have to pay more for it.

"That particular bridge has got to be replaced," Ziegelbauer said. "It will cost us maybe $600,000 or $700,000 additional."

The DOT also tells FOX 11 Investigates that both Brown County and Manitowoc "...will receive additional dollars for their local projects." Exactly how much, the DOT could not say at this point.

Fontecchio says he is pleased to hear about the additional money and says it will be put to good use.

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