- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Virginia officials yesterday agreed with a federal audit that said years of underestimating construction costs are to blame for nearly tripling the price tag of the Springfield interchange project.
But such underestimates in major transportation projects are "not all that unusual," said a spokewoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
A U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General's report says poor expense estimates and the exclusion of "reasonably anticipated and known costs" have caused the project's price to balloon to $676.5 million, up from the original 1994 estimate of $241 million.
The report says 70 percent of transportation projects in Northern Virginia from 1994 to 2000 were delayed or canceled "to provide funds to complete the Springfield project." The report, which was released yesterday, says further overruns are likely.
VDOT officials concurred with the inspector general's findings, and say they have already begun implementing its recommendations, which include developing a comprehensive financial plan, creating an integrated master schedule to minimize construction delays, and strengthening project management.
The interchange, known as the Mixing Bowl, merges motorists from Interstates 95, 395 and 495. VDOT estimates that 430,000 cars use the interchange daily. The Mixing Bowl, begun in 1999 and expected to be completed in 2007, involves building more than 50 overpasses and widening I-95 to 24 lanes between the Beltway and Franconia Road.
Officials say the project will be completed in seven phases over eight years, and is ahead of schedule and 35 percent completed.
The report said that since the initial cost estimates, VDOT expanded the scope of the project to encompass "$140 million of secondary road improvements and design enhancements," "understated project cost estimates by $236.5 million" and "identified $59 million in unanticipated cost increases."
"While there were errors and omissions in project cost estimates, there is no evidence that these were intentional or purposeful errors," VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet said in a response to the federal report.
Rep. James P. Moran, who requested the federal audit in July 2000, said he believed transportation officials deliberately withheld news of the massive cost overruns.
"It's disturbing to see what we suspected confirmed," said Mr. Moran, Virginia Democrat.
VDOT spokeswoman Tamara Neale said the department has historically underestimated construction project costs, but that the practice is widespread.
"It does happen," she said. "It's not all that unusual for construction estimates to be underestimated." She pointed to Boston's "Big Dig" tunnel project, which is expected to be completed in 2004 at a cost of $14.6 billion after an initial 1984 estimate of $2.3 billion.
During his campaign last year, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, Democrat, called for a comprehensive management shake-up in the department to end project delays and cost overruns. Mr. Shucet was appointed to head the department by Mr. Warner in April 2001. Mr. Moran said he thinks Mr. Warner has the problem under control.
Miss Neale said even before the audit, one of Mr. Shucet's highest priorities was revamping the department's cost-estimate system, the results of which will be seen when Mr. Shucet submits the department's six-year transportation plan in May.
By acknowledging the overruns cited by the inspector general, Miss Neale said Mr. Shucet is trying to provide a realistic cost estimate.
"The commissioner will tell you very clearly that we do expect to build this project for $676 million," she said. "That is the budget."


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