Va. road program suffering

Virginia did a lousy job of estimating the cost of the massive Springfield Interchange project and the state’s entire highway building program is suffering because of it, according to a new federal report.

The blame for the state’s failure also belongs to federal highway officials, who approved transportation plans that meant nothing and gave little oversight to state cost estimates that consistently ignored obvious expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General.

The cost of the Springfield project — a critical intersection of Interstates 95, 495 and 395 in Fairfax County — increased by 180 percent from mid-1994 through 2000. The price tag now stands at $676.5 million, which doesn’t include the additional expense of extending high-occupancy vehicle ramps to the Capital Beltway.

As a result, funding for other critical road needs was sucked dry, the report states. In Northern Virginia alone, 70 percent of the projects planned between 1994 and 2000 were delayed, some by more than four years, or abandoned entirely.

“Virginia has eliminated many planned projects because the costs of Springfield and other projects were consistently underestimated,” states the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Times-Dispatch. The report was given privately to Virginia’s congressional delegation for public release on Monday.

The Springfield Interchange project is on track for completion in 2007, the Virginia Department of Transportation said. “That’s the deadline.”

One Democratic congressional spokesman said the report puts the blame for the state’s crippled road program on former Govs. George Allen and James S. Gilmore III, both Republicans who were in power during the period investigated by the inspector general.

“Northern Virginia commuters were not put first,” said Dan Drummond, spokesman for Rep. James P. Moran, D-8th, who asked for the inspector general’s audit more than two years ago. “Instead, VDOT was being used as a political football.”

The report echoes many of the criticisms leveled at the agency over the last two years, including a blunt disavowal of the agency’s six-year highway plan by Gov. Mark R. Warner after taking office early this year.

Warner said yesterday that the report “confirms our diagnosis of the problems and validates our solutions: better project management and better financial management.”

The governor also said that VDOT, under Commissioner Philip A. Shucet, is already carrying out the inspector general’s six recommendations, as well as those made last summer in a report by the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts.

The Federal Highway Administration also agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations, which will mean more federal oversight of major state road projects.

The recommendations include federal approval of a state finance plan for the Springfield project with “reasonable cost estimates, adequate funding, and reliable schedules.” State officials say the project finance plan will be done in 30 days.

The inspector general also recommends that federal officials confirm that the state’s revised transportation plan is “financially achievable” over three years and fully considers the effects of deferring the construction of high-occupancy vehicle ramps.

The report also urges the Federal Highway Administration to set minimum standards for states to follow in making cost estimates on big projects that don’t meet the current $1 billion regulatory threshold.

The lack of such standards for the Springfield project was disastrous, the report concludes. “Consequently, VDOT officials determined which cost elements to include in project cost estimates and which to exclude. In the case of Springfield, they consistently excluded certain known and reasonably anticipated costs.”

In fact, the inspector general found almost $111 million in additional costs that it said were obvious but not included in Virginia’s earlier estimates. Those costs include inflation from 1994 estimates, acquiring rights of way, preliminary engineering and design, and contractor incentives.

The department only began including an inflation factor in its cost projections for highway projects in 2000. “As far as I’m concerned, it validated what I already knew — that our cost-estimating process needed to be fixed,” said Shucet, who came to the department in April.

The department is in the middle of developing a new cost-estimating system that will, from the start, take into account all the factors that add to a project’s price tag.

The inspector general also identified:

$125.6 million in additional costs that should be included in the project’s overall price;

$140 million in additional work, such as improvements to secondary roads, that expanded the project’s scope; and

$59 million in unanticipated cost increases, especially construction delays that stemmed partly from the lack of a master schedule for all of the contractors on the job.

Michael Martz and Peter Bacqu are staff writers at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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