Outer Banks Bridge construction

In this 2018 photo released by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, construction personnel work on a new Bonner Bridge that will span the Oregon Inlet on North Carolina's Outer Banks.

(The Center Square) – The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) went $742 million over its spending limit in 2019, according to a recent state audit of the agency.

In its fiscal year 2019 budget, approved by the General Assembly, NCDOT planned to spend $5.9 billion, but officials spent nearly 13 percent more, state Auditor Beth Wood found.

Wood said NCDOT should create a more structured budget and lawmakers should continue to supervise the department’s spending.

In the report, released Tuesday, Wood said the overspending was a result of a lack of oversight, especially in the highway division.

“The department should base its spending plan on specific projects and operations scheduled for the fiscal year,” Wood said.

NCDOT, with seven divisions, oversees the planning, construction and maintenance of the state’s transportation system, including roads and highways.

NCDOT’s financial troubles are no secret. 

After an audit from an independent firm, the General Assembly had to route an additional $220 million to the department in November to resume projects that stalled because it failed to maintain its cash balance limit between $282 million and $1 billion.

In his response to the state audit, newly appointed NCDOT Secretary Eric Boyette said the department started making efforts in March 2019 to use better forecasting tools to determine spending requirements on projects and programs. However, he said it has been a challenge.

“Operations and maintenance spending on the general maintenance reserve contains thousands of projects within the system level that are reacting to conditions within the system that are continuously changing, making it nearly impossible to predict on an activity level,” he wrote.

Wood also said the chief engineer’s office should monitor the highway division regularly to avoid its overspending. 

The independent audit performed in September found nearly 60 percent of the over expenditures were for construction or maintenance costs. 

The accounting firm McKinsey & Company's findings were similar to the state auditors: among other things, NCDOT was overspending because of disaster recovery efforts and overruns on construction projects.

State auditor Wood said lawmakers “should consider requiring a level of oversight for the Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund similar to the level of oversight provided for the state’s General Fund.”

As part of the General Assembly’s bailout deal, NCDOT was directed by the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee to come up with a plan to instill tighter spending control measures.

NCDOT officials told the committee in March they would use a department-wide accounting system to flag any over expenses and financial staff would sign off on various parts of projects. 

NCDOT also said the chief engineer would perform weekly reviews of highway division projects that cost more than $1,000 and spending projections would be reviewed every three months.

The Center Square confirmed NCDOT has also been publishing weekly cash balance reports.

Staff Reporter

Nyamekye Daniel has been a journalist for five years. She was the managing editor for the South Florida Media Network and a staff writer for The Miami Times. Daniel's work has also appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Miami Herald and The New York Times.