- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

The estimated price tag for revamping the Springfield Interchange has gone up once again, Virginia transportation officials announced yesterday, and is now nearly $200 million more than the original estimate.

Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Commissioner Charles D. "Chip" Nottingham said in a press release the estimate for reconstructing the interchanges between Interstates 95, 395 and 495 is now $540 million. That's $31 million more than the estimate from just three months ago, and far beyond the $350 million officials initially announced it would cost in 1994.

Mr. Nottingham said the cost is increasing because construction, labor and land costs continue to rise, and he cautioned the project estimate hasn't topped out yet.

He said the project will still be done on time and Gov. James S. Gilmore III has made the same pledge in the past but some Democrats doubt those promises.

State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, predicted years ago that the final cost would be between $700 million and $750 million and the project would take eight or nine years. Yesterday, he said he's still confident in his prediction and said VDOT will continue to raise the estimates.

"You're going to be seeing these press conferences every couple of months," he said.

When finished, the new interchange will have 24 lanes at its widest point, 30 ramps, 41 miles of roadway and 50 bridges.

The Mixing Bowl, as the interchange is called, has become the bad penny that keeps turning up for the Gilmore administration.

In June, Mr. Gilmore and VDOT were roundly criticized by Democratic and Republican lawmakers when they found out the new cost estimate was $509 million.

Lawmakers said they'd never been told of the huge jump, and reporters using the $350 million figure first calculated in 1994 were never corrected by VDOT. But VDOT officials said it was always in line-item allocations in documents at lawmakers' fingertips just not added together for them.

The original jump of $159 million was blamed on inflation, which was never calculated into the 1994 estimate. Last week, Mr. Gilmore, a Republican, announced that henceforth all estimates on VDOT projects will include inflation costs.

Democrats and business leaders were pleased the administration announced this new estimate so quickly, but wondered what dollar figure the roulette ball will come to rest on.

"It's just one number after another, and it just begs the question: What's the next number going to be?" said David M. Guernsey, chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, which has taken the lead in lobbying for transportation improvements.

But he said he's also pleased to see Mr. Gilmore exercise oversight of the department.

The $31 million increase in the estimate will have to be paid for somehow, and Mr. Nottingham said he hopes some of the money will come from federal sources. If not, the state General Assembly will have to make up the difference.

It was not clear if that money would be siphoned from other road projects.

Mr. Nottingham didn't return phone calls to address that or critics' question as to why transportation officials would continue to announce incomplete estimates even as they concede the amount is certain to go up.

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