A legislative study group today released a stinging review of Virginia's Department of Highways and Transportation, accusing the agency of poor management policies that led to overspending on equipment and construction projects, excessive staffing and unnecessary delays in completion of new roads.

The report, written by the staff of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, was especially critical of the department's bidding practices, noting cost overruns totaling $17 million in 82 percent of the agency's road projects. It cited unauthorized delays in 28 percent of those projects and awards of bids to companies with poor past performances.

A federal grand jury has been probing allegations of rigged bids on state highway projects by road contracting firms and executives, 10 of whom have been convicted.

The study also criticized department purchases of new equipment, contending that nearly 80 percent of the agency's requests for new trucks, compressors and other heavy machinery could be met with already available equipment at a savings of up to $9.5 million.

"People will be incensed up here because we've got a critical need for road construction," said Fairfax County Supervisor Audrey Moore. "It would certainly be upsetting to find out they're wasting any of that money."

The department -- frequently attacked by Northern Virginia officials for allegedly shortchanging the region on roads and mass transit funding -- came under fire last January when Gov. John N. Dalton's administration pushed the state legislature for a gasoline tax increase to supplement the agency's budget.

A 2-cent-per-gallon tax increase eventually passed despite objections from opponents, who argued the department was waste-ridden and needed a complete overhaul. Those accusations led the legislature to approve the study released today.

"I wish we'd known about some of this before we passed that gas tax increase," said Del. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke County), one of the department's strongest legislative critics.

Among the examples of alleged waste, the commission found that the department left idle large amounts of its own equipment while spending $27 million over the last five years to lease privately owned machinery and vehicles. It also noted that the agency bought 19 heavy-duty snowplows at a cost of $519,000 eight years ago that have been used an average of only 2 1/2 hours per year since then. Eight of the plows were not used at all last year.

In contrast to Virginia, the report found that neighboring North Carolina's highway department gets approximately 23 percent more work from its employes, when the figures are adjusted by state roadway miles. Some state legislators have charged that the Virginia agency traditionally was used as a patronage tool by the now-defunct political machine of the late senator Harry F. Byrd, and still maintains bloated job rolls.

Deputy Highway Commissioner Leo Busser said today the department agreed with some of the criticism leveled in the report and had already begun to implement some of the study's recommendations. But Busser defended the size of the agency's staff; contending that the department offered better and more complete services than its North Carolina counterpart.

Busser also defended the department's equipment purchases, saying of the snowplows, "Frankly, I hope we never have to use them. But you can't rent one, and when someone in Loudoun County's got a 12-foot drift in front of his driveway, he's going to expect us to be there to remove it."

As for the reported $17 million in project overruns, Busser said the figure was not unusual for a $200 million construction program, and said all overruns went for additional work and were properly authorized.

Concerning bidding practices, the commission reported that the highway department did not thoroughly check links between contractors to ensure that affiliated companies were not bidding for the same job. It also criticized the state's method of rebidding jobs when contractors' bids exceed the department's own estimates for a project. It said that in many instances, rebidding actually led to higher costs, citing a Hampton bridge project as an example.

In that case, the original low bid was $803,000, well above the department's estimate of $603,000. When the job was advertised again, the lowest bid was $828,000, and on a third attempt, $834,000.

"Because the bridge to be replaced was in poor condition, however, the department awarded the contract," said the report. "If the project had been awarded in the first bidding, the department could have saved $31,000."