- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

NORFOLK (AP) — The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is primarily to blame for a three-year delay and a $25 million cost overrun for the “smart highway” network along Hampton Roads interstates, an audit concludes.

VDOT’s Hampton Roads District has not exercised adequate control over buying and installing the high-tech network, the department’s Internal Audit Division found.

The report also cited instances in which project managers paid more for services than they were worth and accepted outdated equipment without first testing to see if it worked.

The audit was obtained by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper of Norfolk, which published the findings yesterday.

VDOT completed the second phase of the network in March, bringing it to a total of 118 cameras and 151 variable-message signs along 50 miles of local interstate. The final phase now under way involves an addition of 170 cameras and 93 signs along 63 more miles of highway.

The total estimated cost of the project, primarily paid by the Federal Highway Administration, has risen to $128.7 million. That agency, however, has held up about $18 million in reimbursements to VDOT for the third phase, scheduled for completion in 2006.

VDOT officials now intend to persuade the federal agency that they have taken enough steps to warrant release of the withheld funds. Otherwise, the cash-strapped state agency may have to swallow that cost.

VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet described the report as helpful in pinpointing poor practices that the department is correcting. Despite the failings cited in the report, he said, the traffic-management system is working as expected to help traffic move more efficiently.

The audit was requested by the Federal Highway Administration after it raised concerns about the practice of accepting equipment without testing it first.

The smart-highway network has posed many problems for VDOT, partly because the department had never built anything like it before in Hampton Roads.

Cameras, electronic-message signs and traffic sensors along the interstates and primary roads are tied by miles of fiber-optic cable into an array of video-switching computers at a Smart Traffic Center.

There, controllers monitor traffic and coordinate responses to accidents, breakdowns and bridge openings. Their actions range from flashing alerts on electronic road signs to reversing the direction of traffic on high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes.

Images from the networks’ cameras are available to the public via the Internet and are a regular part of local TV newscasts.

The delays and cost overruns have been partly the result of poor design. At one point, for instance, foundations for many of the overhead message signs were found to be too weak to withstand wind gusts from passing trucks.

In response to the report, Mr. Shucet approved the appointment of Bob Riley, a former VDOT employee who now works for Maryland engineering firm, as the new project manager.

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