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Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)

Right of Way Quality Managment System - The Journey of Five States

The Survey States: Wisconsin

The real estate program operates under a decentralized model within the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). The mission of WisDOT is "to provide leadership in the development and operation of a safe and efficient transportation system."

The Division of Transportation Districts (DTD) in Wisconsin contains eight autonomous geographic districts that vary to some degree in their individual structures and/or assignments of program responsibilities. The RE offices within these eight districts have a total of approximately 90-100 staff, who are responsible for RE activities within the assigned geographic area.

The Bureau of Highway Real Estate (BHRE) in the central office is part of the Division of Transportation Infrastructure Development. BHRE has 18 RE staff responsible for facilitating and implementing policy and procedure and for providing training and functional guidance within RE and WisDOT. ROW staff in the central office numbered 25-30 people 20 years ago. This number has been incrementally reduced to the current 18 through operational budget cuts and attrition. Within the bureau are two operational sections in which ROW processes are carried out: the acquisition and services section and the appraisal/relocation/property management section.

According to staff providing input, the decentralized structure provides flexibility and makes the individual districts more receptive to piloting new ideas. WisDOT's decentralized quality management model appears to incorporate the philosophies of Crosby, Deming, and Drucker in the overall quality management system. WisDOT has successfully completed Crosby's four absolutes of quality management: (1) conformance of quality systems to necessary requirements, in this case, Federal/State laws and regulations; (2) evaluation and identification of all processes; (3) a quality standard similar to the zero defect approach; and (4) a system to measure quality improvement.

Having done a great job of understanding the importance of measuring of its continuous improvement processes, WisDOT is ready for strategic goal setting and planning. WisDOT's system measures performance through identification of 10 proposed performance indicators, which are tied to outputs, outcomes, and consequences of the highway RE development program. The philosophy behind this system is that performance indicators should not be evaluated individually, but as an integrated set of tools to improve work processes and to further better decision-making. The indicators also give the agency an excellent baseline to begin its measurement processes.

The ten measurement criteria are:

  1. Property costs: percent comparison of actual costs to budgeted costs;
  2. Project acquisition time: number of projects certified clear by scheduled letting date;
  3. Labor or delivery costs: percent comparison of actual labor costs to WisDOT's delivery standard;
  4. Customer service: a survey sent to property owners to measure their satisfaction with customer service;
  5. Revised offers: the number of offers revised due to market justification in a fiscal year;
  6. Condemnation rate: the percentage of parcels condemned in a fiscal year;
  7. Administrative revisions: the number of ofers revised for administrative purposes and the amount of dollars allocated to those administrative revisions in a fiscal year;
  8. Appeal rate: the number of appeals received in a fiscal year and the cost of litigation;
  9. Surplus land sales: the increase or decrease to the statewide inventory during the fiscal year; and;
  10. Complaints: the number of real estate related complaints received by the Governor or Secretary of Transportation.

WisDOT, like the other States, realizes that a critical component in securing right-of-way is the property appraisal, a process that establishes the value of the property to be acquired. Relatively simple, inexpensive properties are referred to as nominal parcels in Wisconsin. WisDOT estimates that nominal parcels currently represent about 60 percent of its workload in the appraisal area. Securing nominal parcels can be expedited through use of the appraisal waiver, a simplified valuation process. Initially the limit for the appraisal waiver process was set at $2,500 by Federal regulation. However, in a 1996 study, Wisconsin suggested that if the limit were raised to $5,000, another 8 percent of the appraisal workload would be absorbed into the nominal process and thereby improve efficiency. Of the estimated 40 percent of parcels over $5,000 that require a full narrative appraisal, the specific appraisal may or may not be contracted out and/or require central office involvement. During negotiations of an appraised parcel, Wisconsin provides the owner with a copy of the State's appraisal. Wisconsin statutes also give owners the opportunity to hire an independent appraiser of their choice, which the State pays for if certain guidelines are met and the appraisal fees are reasonable.

The degree of contracting for appraisal work varies from district to district, although it is estimated that about 75 percent of appraisal work is contracted out. WisDOT staff generally perform the other important functions of right-of-way negotiation, acquisition, relocation, and condemnation, with small percentages of these services contracted out.

Roughly 5 percent of parcels will require condemnation for a variety of reasons. Of this 5 percent, only 5-6 percent will involve litigation to resolve differences and reach settlement with the property owner. If the property goes to condemnation court proceedings and the jury or commission decision comes in at 15 percent or more above WisDOT's highest written offer, then WisDOT must also pay for the owner's associated legal costs. The Wisconsin Department of Justice defends WisDOT in these matters, and WisDOT pays for costs of legal representation, expert witnesses, and employee staff time.

Public Relations

In the community relations area, WisDOT also has useful tools in place. The agency produces informational pamphlets and brochures that describe the acquisition and relocation processes and outline the rights of landowners under Wisconsin Eminent Domain law. Further efforts include a guide entitled In this Together, were designed to help Wisconsin businesses sustain during highway construction.

Because LPA's are one of Wisconsin's customers, WisDOT also produces a right-of-way acquisition guide for them. This reader-friendly guide summarizes LPA process requirements under Wisconsin law and FHWA standards--to facilitate the LPA-WisDOT partnership.

Staff at WisDOT's District 1 office discussed the public relations process used to inform the community as a whole about proposed projects. The process includes a public information meeting, where detailed information is discussed regarding the proposed highway project, its location, and its effect on specific properties in the ROW corridor. A presentation is made to all attendees, with questions and concerns encouraged and considered. District 1, like all of the districts, employs one public information officer to handle public relations and media matters. Having one designated staff member helps ensure a uniform message to the public and an appropriate address of property owners' concerns.


A statement training committee was formed in January 1995 following a discussion of training needs at a real estate management meeting. Although the WisDOT real estate training was seen as outstanding, the committee was charged with making its training program even better, an example of quality improvement at its best. The committee adopted a goal to "develop and implement a comprehensive, logical, and progressive training program for all DOT real estate personnel." It identified nine functional areas of expertise needed at three different skill levels, and established core competency courses geared to the needs of staff at any technical level. It documented responsibilities for identifying specific training needs each fiscal year, coordinated the scheduling of courses to address those needs, and included a recommended timetable. The committee also produced a real estate training manual and recommended a process for establishing a computerized, LAN-based system for tracking training records. BHRE's advanced real estate specialists are primarily responsible for training in their areas of expertise and may draw on other district real estate specialists and management for training needs. In an attempt to work smarter, WisDOT is developing course shells that it can tailor based on need, rather than having to re-create and redevelop training materials. Recently, BHRE created a position to coordinate this effort, as well as to analyze, recommend, and coordinate appropriate training forums.

WisDOT conducts statewide training conferences every 18 months, involving all RE staff. The conference is designed to bring together both district and central office staff to network and to generate a feeling of statewide partnership. The conference devotes time to a general session, which provides staff with more global (departmental) information, usually through presentations by division administrators, and updates on issues that impact real estate as a whole. Along with formal training classes and other forums offered during the course of the year, at least one full day of this 2-day conference is devoted to breakout sessions designed to meet some of the needs identified during the previous year.

Another forum for training is the special quality circles or user groups in place for the functional areas of relocation, property management, LPA coordination, litigation, and real estate automation. These user groups include one specialty agent (e.g. litigation agent for the litigation users group) from each district and central office. They meet quarterly, or as issues dictate, to discuss shared strategies and problem-solving techniques for issues within their functional areas. They generate new ideas and best practices to present to management and surface shared experiences from functional area experts. As a result of user group meetings, at least one publication and numerous process changes have occurred. According to Ms. Deanna Walsh of central office, sharing and mentoring through the relocation users group, for example, has resulted in the traditional 5-year training period for new relocation agents being reduced to approximately 1-2 years.

Project Management

Through its interagency effort to develop ad-hoc work groups in the District 2 Waukesha office, staff there have created a work environment that provides a comprehensive understanding of the importance of the entire project, from project design through construction. The District 2 project management team concept is an excellent example of cross-boundary communication, much like Deming's model, that stresses the importance of extending communication across different units and divisions. This multidisciplinary team was established to make sure that each project is let on time and within budget, but more importantly, to ensure fair treatment of the client throughout the process--a critical ROW focus. These project management teams have fostered an environment of candid and direct communication that elucidates the roles and responsibilities of each unit and provides a forum for problem-solving opportunities. Once candid communication in an interdisciplinary team is established, a mutual respect for the other's work processes can develop.

Particularly interesting is the project management team concept found at the District 4 office. Two District 4 management personnel discussed their project management approach, wherein it was obvious that the district's quality management philosophy permeated the office. An expressd need for cross-boundary training throughout WisDOT created an environment of mutual respect and an understanding of working and project teams. Incorporating the team approach enables all the engineering design, ROW and construction staff to understand their respective goals and roles.

Production Tools

WisDOT has a number of noteworthy production tools. The agency has established an excellent training program that will result in continuous improvement for its employees. The mentoring and problem-solving quality circles or functional user groups is a tool that adds value to the right-of-way process. The Real Estate Automated Data System (READS), a tracking and production system, allows the user to obtain status updates on any parcel and will result in less time spent manually tracking these details. Any piece of data can be merged throughout various reports, letters, and documents, thus reducing rewrites and clerical processing time.

District 1 initiated a process, called a blitz procedure, for noncomplex or nominal parcel acquisitions deemed appropriate. This process involves an informational meeting specifically for impacted property owners. At this meeting, proper WisDOT appraisal and acquisition procedures and expected correspondence are all explained to the property owners. Informational packets are prepared and given to attendees so that they may follow along during the discussions. A question-and-answer session is also held to clarify any points, and is followed by one-on-one negotiations with these property owners. The blitz meeting allows district personnel to convey consistent information to a group of property owners and offers the potential for acquiring 30-40 parcels in one day. It also achieves the goal of personally meeting with affected property owners to address their concerns, present them with offers, and sign people up, on the spot, if they are in agreement.

WisDOT has also created a real estate estimating tool, referred to as the matrix. The matrix allows management to more accurately predict staff needs and workload on proposed or pending projects through establishing individual cost estimates for individual real estate activities. The estimate is calculated by multiplying the number of person days required to do specific jobs by WisDOT's real estate workday rate for the fiscal year to generate a funding estimate for the project. The estimate is also used as an internal tool to evaluate the price proposals of outside consultants.

Internal and External Controls

Key to implementing any successful system is establishing internal and external controls. The WisDOT BHRE has begun conducting annual quality assurance reviews, patterned after Florida DOT's quality assurance review process. These reviews are intended to replace project-by-project approvals, which added another layer of oversight and have, in the past, caused production delays. The review will be conducted using BHRE advanced specialists and occasionally district specialists. As part of the process, BHRE makes recommendations to the districts based on the findings. The districts then will provide a corrective action plan discussing the remedies as they pertain to continuous improvement. The reviews are also used to identify best practices used by various districts.

WisDOT has done an excellent job of identifying the needs of its external customers (property owners) through the use of customer satisfaction surveys. Each district distributes a survey to a parcel owner after acquisition or relocation. Surveys are returned to central office, where responses are entered into a database and routed to the specific district for review. Each district is responsible for responding to surveys and for addressing specific issues requiring attention through letters, telephone calls, or customer visits. To date, survey responses have indicated customer satisfaction with the ROW staff's service.

Performance Indicators

Of particular interest is real estate's establishment of a system of performance indicators designed to assess how the WisDOT RE program is performing and where process improvements are needed. A cross-divisional team developed this system by evaluating processes and selecting indicators that they believed were most representative of the RE program elements. WisDOT's 10 performance indicators to serve as the mechanism for measuring program and process quality performance. The indicators are useful in setting quality achievement program goals.

Updated: 9/5/2014
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