- The Washington Times - Friday, November 29, 2002

A major reason why Northern Virginians rejected the tax-increase referendum for transportation Nov. 5 is the state's recent history of project delays, cost overruns and squandered taxpayer dollars on road projects. For example, much-delayed Wilson Bridge improvements are way over budget. Just last week, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) admitted it had failed to use more than $200 million in federal money available to repair bridges. And, on Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a new report that constitutes an indictment of the state's performance (and to a lesser extent, that of the Federal Highway Administration's oversight work) in managing the I-95/I-395 Mixing Bowl project near Springfield.
According to the OIG report, the failure to accurately estimate expenses and the exclusion of "reasonably anticipated and known costs" have caused the price of modernizing this major interchange to skyrocket increasing from the $241 million in 1994 to $676.5 million today. Of that $435.5 million or so in cost overruns, more than half ($236.5 million) resulted from the fact that VDOT officials "consistently excluded certain reasonably anticipated and known costs." The report suggests that the ultimate costs could approach $1 billion before the whole thing is finished if it ever is.
As a result of the massive cost overruns on the Mixing Bowl, 70 percent of the transportation projects in Northern Virginia from 1994-2000 were delayed (some for more than four years) or cancelled outright to ensure that funds remained available to complete the Springfield project, the OIG reported. Other desperately needed road improvements, which include on and off ramps, merge lanes and so forth along the Beltway and elsewhere, may never even get off the drawing board. VDOT has no source of funding for $84 million worth of these improvements which have already been approved.
Despite this abysmal performance, state Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet, appointed by Gov. Mark Warner, vows that the Mixing Bowl project will not cost more than $700 million. One thing's for certain: Many local politicians and, in particular, a number of senior Republicans who swallowed hard and supported Mr. Warner's unsuccessful transportation tax referendum will be carefully watching Mr. Shucet's performance in holding down costs.
Rep. Tom Davis, for example, said that, if the Mixing Bowl's cost further balloons to $1 billion, then "in retrospect, you look at this and say 'What else could I have done for a billion?' This is a project that sucks massive amounts of dollars that you could be doing other things with." Delegate Jack Rollison, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told The Washington Post that the state's budget difficulties and voter rejection of the tax referendum will make it extremely difficult for the state to continue to pour more money into the Springfield-area project. Now, it's time for the governor and Mr. Shucet to move quickly to ensure that the mushrooming Mixing Bowl costs do not escalate to the point that they crowd out money for more needed, cost-effective road projects.


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