VDOT's Woes Cause Worry About Projects
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 13, 1998
First in a series
Virginia's Department of Transportation is plagued by lengthy project delays, multimillion-dollar budget overruns, a lack of oversight and a severe personnel shortage, leading local officials to question how the agency will complete a decade of planned road-building in Washington's Virginia suburbs and elsewhere.
In Northern Virginia, where a quarter of the state's road construction takes place, the widening of the Dulles Toll Road and completion of the Fairfax County Parkway are a combined $35 million over budget and months behind schedule. The state also will have to shell out at least $22 million to cover overruns in two high-technology projects aimed at moving traffic faster through Northern Virginia by synchronizing traffic signals.
VDOT, or VEE-dot, as many Virginians call the agency, has had trouble rebounding from the loss of about 1,300 employees in the last four years, most from former governor George Allen's $40 million buyout program that trimmed what Allen said was a bloated state bureaucracy. It led VDOT to turn over much of its road design and maintenance work - worth hundreds of millions of dollars - to private firms.
The abrupt exodus of about 11 percent of VDOT's work force - including many of its most experienced engineers - also accelerated long-simmering problems at the agency, which controls virtually everything having to do with building and maintaining roads and bridges in the Old Dominion.
Allen's buyout program initially saved the state $53 million. But a state report to be released today is inconclusive as to whether Allen's program actually has saved millions of dollars each year as advertised, legislative sources say.
The report does say that the program led to increased costs in some projects, because the private consultants who were hired wound up costing more than VDOT would have spent had it done the work itself.
The buyout program has left VDOT short of experienced senior managers at a time when Congress is showering the state with unprecedented federal money - $671 million a year over the next six years - for a building program that includes a $320 million highway interchange at Springfield and the state's share of the $1.6 billion project to replace the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Questions about the buyout program come as frustrated officials from Fairfax to Tidewater, who for years have not criticized VDOT out of fear they would offend the state agency that controls local road money, now are openly wondering about VDOT's ability to finish those and other projects on time and within budget.
"All kinds of very skilled people with historical memories walked out the door, in droves. It was unanticipated," said Fairfax County Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence). "That's an inefficiency that plagues VDOT."
Said Shiva K. Pant, Fairfax County's transportation chief: "With all this federal money coming, we're at a crossroads. Getting that much money is great, but . . . they're going to have to gear up to get the projects ready."
State officials defend the buyout program, saying that in the long run it will save the state millions of dollars each year. And they vow that VDOT will be able to handle the expanded federal road-building program; Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) is allowing the agency to hire enough permanent and temporary employees to meet its demands. The program requires states to return unspent federal highway money at the end of a fiscal year.
"We're going to keep things on time," said VDOT Commissioner David R. Gehr, the agency's top manager. "We won't lose federal dollars. We never have."
Still, local officials worry that VDOT's loss of experienced personnel - combined with what they view as the agency's lack of diligence in completing work on time and within budget - has created the potential for enormous problems.
"VDOT's process is broken," said James K. Spore, city manager of Virginia Beach, where delays in six of eight major road projects have annoyed tourists, residents and businesses. "A few months you can understand. But some cases are more than double the estimated completion time. There's just no sense of urgency there."
Part of the problem, state auditors say, is that the engineers who remained at VDOT after the buyout program have been overwhelmed with work.
Many of VDOT's remaining employees have told auditors they can't finish their duties on time, which the employees said leads to more delays and mistakes in the design of road and bridge projects.
Managers in the critical division that designs road projects, which has lost 50 of its 250 employees since 1991, have told auditors that they don't have the time or people to properly oversee all their work. Engineers manage an average of 23 projects at a time - three times the average in the private sector - and some juggle as many as 60 projects. Overtime expenses are up 19 percent since 1995, or about $3 million a year.
Meanwhile, local officials point to several recent cases in which they say VDOT's oversight was lacking: A senior engineer was sent to jail after stealing $366,000 from the Dulles Toll Road automated toll-collection project, and another manager was suspended after building up a $550,000 overrun in the popular program in which roving VDOT trucks assist stranded motorists.
"Where's the accounting and the accountability?" asked Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "They lay out the estimates" for projects, "but then there doesn't seem to be a budget. There doesn't seem to be a limit. It's just perennial estimation."
State transportation officials say the delays and cost overruns are not signs of mismanagement, a defense that local officials say reflects an agency culture in which overspending is anticipated in many projects because money is usually available to cover overruns - a word transportation officials rarely use.
"I do get concerned about referring to changes in the scope of projects as 'overruns,'" said Virginia Transportation Secretary Shirley Ybarra. "These happen frequently because we have to meet the requirements of a project. There's nothing good or bad about them."
Unexpected complications, such as poor soil or asbestos removal, drive up costs, VDOT officials say. So do demands from residents, who sometimes ask for changes to a project once it is underway to ease the impact on them. A contingency of up to 20 percent is added to most programs, but VDOT often uses it up, knowing there will be more money available to complete a project because, as Gehr said, "we aren't going to leave a roadway or a bridge undone once we get started."
Added Thomas F. Farley, VDOT's chief engineer in Northern Virginia: "When we first estimate the costs of a project, it's not just seat-of-the-pants, but the best we have. [But] it's not uncommon or unexpected to have design errors or add-ons that increase the contract price. . . . I don't want people to think there's a linkage or pattern or trend" of management problems at VDOT.
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