A Good Chance to Be Taken for a Ride

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, June 24, 2007

E xtending Metro to Dulles Airport is like adding a room to your house: The price and timetable you get going into the project bear only a tangential relationship to reality. Along the way, you'll have to give up on those gold-standard materials. No matter how hard and fast the deal you thought you had with the contractor, somehow you'll end up with a different price -- and different means higher.

But when you pick your contractor, you will certainly shy away from the guy you know was involved in massive cost overruns on your friend's basement. That's where Virginia and you part ways: To design Metro's extension from Falls Church to the airport, the state hired a consortium headed by Bechtel Corp., the company that managed perhaps the biggest construction fiasco in American history, Boston's Big Dig.

The cost of the Big Dig -- a two-mile underground highway, bridge and tunnel through a dense, historic chunk of downtown Boston -- skyrocketed from $4 billion to $14 billion over two decades. The Massachusetts inspector general concluded that Bechtel, one of the world's largest engineering firms and the builder of everything from the Hoover Dam to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility, "failed to inform the state legislature of the true cost of the Big Dig." And a Boston Globe investigation found that Bechtel failed to detect major flaws in construction, signed off on error-filled designs and was responsible for more than $1 billion in cost overruns.

Even after the seemingly endless project was completed last year, Bechtel's troubles mounted. The tunnels sprang leaks and a concrete ceiling panel fell, crushing a woman on her way to the airport.

Bechtel executives dispute the state and newspaper reports and defend the quality of their work, but the question stands: Why would Virginia turn to this company to handle Dulles rail, and what guarantees are there for taxpayers and drivers on the Dulles Toll Road -- the two groups who will pay the biggest chunk of the bill -- that costs won't soar as they did in Boston?

"It's our money, but how much leverage do we have moving forward?" asks Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), one of only two "no" votes in last week's approval of an elevated route through Tysons Corner (she preferred to tunnel under the highly congested area). "There are contingencies and penalties, and it's a pretty tight contract, but it's not that different from the one they had for the Big Dig."

Yes, it is, says Sam Carnaggio, the state's project director for the Metro extension. "Believe me, I'm concerned about any contractor that was involved in something like that," he says. "Bechtel was certainly part of a project that went out of control. But there's a lot of blame there that belongs with the state."

The real test, Smyth says, is how closely the government will supervise Bechtel's work. Carnaggio agrees and says Virginia will examine every invoice Bechtel submits and conduct inspections to make sure the reported work is really done.

Smyth doesn't believe Bechtel should have been disqualified because of the Boston mess -- after all, the company handled contracts on the $700 million Springfield Mixing Bowl, which is on schedule -- but she's concerned that Virginia didn't look closely enough at what went wrong in Massachusetts.

And she worries that history is repeating itself as state officials and their chosen contractors produce artificially low estimates to impress federal transit authorities.

Carnaggio says it's true that Virginia pushed Bechtel to lower its estimates. He says that the process is not intended to hide the true costs but rather to eliminate amenities that the state can't afford. So while the original plan was to build the rail line 85 feet below ground between the Tysons I and Tysons II shopping malls, then on down Route 7, that tunnel now will be only 40 feet below the surface and will be three-eighths of a mile rather than seven-eights of a mile, and the rest will be elevated. "We narrowed pedestrian bridges and took out some stairs and got the costs down," he says.

Carnaggio concedes that the price of rail to Dulles, now estimated at $5.1 billon, has jumped several times and could go higher. "The price is as fixed as any construction project can be," he says. "Some choices won't be made until 2010; for example, we don't want to fix prices for the stations before then because costs for materials could change, up or down."

That's the nature of construction, he says. "Things can happen. We just have to watch closely."

Especially when the contractor is somebody who is fresh from a project that went historically out of control.


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