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Digging Deep for Road Work

I-66 Expansion Shows Rising Cost of Projects on Aging Highways

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page B01

Rumble strips are cheap. They cost only $1. Of course, 21,528 of them are needed for a project to widen part of Interstate 66 near Manassas.

Those nice-looking junipers that adorn the roadside cost $219 each; workers are planting 178 of them for a total of $38,982.

The 3.8-mile widening project along Interstate 66 near Manassas will total $43.9 million in construction costs. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

The Tab

A lot more than concrete and labor go into building a highway. Consider these costs for a 3.8-mile widening of Interstate 66:

Asphalt and stone: $14 million

Getting rid of dirt: $5.1 million

Concrete: $3.9 million

Dusting: $940,000

Portable message sign: $400,000

Electronic arrow: $100,000

Flaggers: $85,000

Junipers: $38,982

Rumble strips: $21,528

Virginia OKs Dulles Toll Hike (The Washington Post, Feb 17, 2005)
New Tolls, Not Taxes, Favored for Area Roads (The Washington Post, Feb 16, 2005)
For Ehrlich, a Return to Routine (The Washington Post, Feb 15, 2005)
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The electronic arrow that directs drivers around the work site costs an average of $5 an hour to operate. It will flash for 20,000 hours between now and the project's expected completion in fall 2006, running $100,000.

Cleaning up dust on the site? That would be $940,000.

And that's just the nickel-and-dime stuff.

Concrete for retaining walls and bridges totals $3.9 million. Asphalt and stone cost more than $14 million. Just getting rid of dirt will cost $5.1 million.

All told, the 3.8-mile widening project will total $43.9 million in construction costs. An additional $13.9 million will be spent on engineering and land purchases on 5.4 miles of I-66 that includes the Manassas stretch. Construction of the remaining 1.6 miles has been put on hold for at least three years because the state can't afford it.

The expansion of I-66 represents a sliver of Virginia's transportation budget, yet it illustrates the amount of money state officials say it takes to add capacity to a network that is buckling under the pressure of daily commuters, truck traffic and the needs of a rapidly growing population.

Virginia will spend $3.1 billion on transportation this year, but state officials said that doesn't buy all that much anymore. Steel, cement, plywood and other resource costs have risen dramatically. The interstate maintenance bill is bulging because of hundreds of miles of new roads and tens of thousands of miles of aging infrastructure. In high-growth areas such as Northern Virginia, land and construction tabs are soaring.

"I've seen appraisals go up almost 100 percent in a time period of two to three years," said Bill Cuttler, a preliminary engineering manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The department's Northern Virginia administrator, Dennis C. Morrison, added that "it makes it difficult to have a six-year plan you can count on because costs keep going up."

For decades, Virginia, like most states, built, built and built some more. Now all those highways, bridges and ramps have reached the age at which they need to be fixed, often at exorbitant costs.

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge, for instance, is not being replaced by a $2.43 billion structure because of the daily jams it causes but rather because it is crumbling under the strain of 200,000 cars and trucks a day.

"If you look nationwide at the interstate system -- built in the '50s and '60s -- it's reaching the end of its life," said Tina Collier, a researcher with the Texas Transportation Institute. "A lot of it needs to be rebuilt, and in urban centers as it's rebuilt, it needs to be expanded as well."

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