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Rising Costs Throw Wrench Into Counties' Building Plans

Changes in construction plans are among the factors that affect building costs. An expansion of the courthouse renovations that Fairfax County officials sought after the price was set added almost $14 million to the cost.
Changes in construction plans are among the factors that affect building costs. An expansion of the courthouse renovations that Fairfax County officials sought after the price was set added almost $14 million to the cost. (Photos By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

Frustrated by escalating costs and a shortage of materials, local governments in the Washington area have delayed or scaled back major construction projects and poured extra money into others once thought to be fully funded.

Steadily rising expenses are a fact of life when dealing with bricks and mortar. The interval between a project's approval and the first shovelful of dirt can be long, and governments usually allow for inflation -- often about 4 percent or 5 percent of the total price -- when they calculate the price of big-ticket capital projects. But the surge in construction expenses over the past two years has undermined those traditional estimates and forced officials to modify their plans.

Some of the changes amount to architectural nips and tucks unlikely to be noticed by the public after the ribbons are cut: smaller meeting rooms in a community center, fewer bathrooms in a shelter for homeless families, no skylight in a new library. Other decisions will have broader consequences -- increasing, for example, the debt localities must take on to finance important improvements.

Delays in delivery of bulletproof glass and blast-resistant steel and concrete will slow the completion of Fairfax County's $135.5 million public safety and transportation operations center, which will be the hub of county operations during a national emergency or a natural disaster.

In Montgomery County, officials are looking at a 20 percent rise in school construction costs this year. They are also dealing with significant cost increases for the Civic Building project, regarded as a critical link in Silver Spring's revitalization.

The demand for the bulletproof glass and other materials, and for skilled mechanical labor committed to post-Katrina reconstruction along the Gulf Coast, will push completion of Fairfax's public safety center from November 2007 to mid-2008.

"There's more demand for these materials because of the world we live in," said Deputy County Executive Robert A. Stalzer.

The estimated cost of Silver Spring's Civic Building, envisioned as a focal point for county services and community life, rose from $8.5 million in 1999 to $16 million last year. To reduce the price, officials eliminated an ice skating rink and pavilion, infuriating residents who said the rink was a major factor in their support of the redevelopment.

Under pressure, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) restored those features, bringing the cost to $22 million. Even with the added cost, the new design eliminates a permanent stage in the building's great hall and reduces the size of an atrium, meeting rooms and an art gallery.

Bids from contractors on three Loudoun County projects -- a fire and rescue training center, two group homes and a performing arts center at Franklin Park in Purcellville -- have come in more than 40 percent over budget. The Board of Supervisors voted to spend additional money on the homes and arts center but reduced the training center's scope.

Pressure to build has grown so much that this month, the Loudoun board approved the creation of a capital construction office. The booming county's six-year, $1.37 billion capital improvement plan includes 11 elementary schools, two middle schools, libraries, recreation centers and parks.

"We finally faced the fact that we're in the construction business," county financial analyst Ben Mays said.

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