Dissent, Dollars Snarled Traffic System
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 1998; Page A1
Second in a series
One by one, the 15 transportation engineers signed a pledge in December 1993. They would "work together in a positive manner" to install a sophisticated, high-technology traffic signal system that would speed drivers through nearly 800 intersections in Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun counties.
They agreed to finish the project in two years and spend no more than the $15.3 million that had been budgeted. And along the way, the engineers -- all employees of the Virginia Department of Transportation and a private contractor -- said they would treat each other with mutual respect and honesty to avoid fights. "By doing things right the first time, we instill pride and complete the project on time," their pledge said.
None of those promises was kept.
The project ended in April, two years late. All told, it will cost almost $27 million, and the contractor and VDOT are still haggling over nearly $1 million in fines and disputed bills. Just five of the original 15 engineers were around at the end. And for motorists jammed on Northern Virginia's roads, the system still won't work as planned for at least another year.
The story of the signal system is not just about one difficult contract. It offers a glimpse of how Virginia transportation projects often wind up being late and over budget, leaving public officials and residents unhappy with the state's supervision. It shows the impact of a recent exodus of skilled employees as well as the difficulty VDOT is having in adjusting its mission to include high-technology traffic management.
Interviews with local, state and federal officials and the contractor, plus a review of hundreds of documents related to the signal project, show it was headed for trouble from the start.
Supply costs were grossly underestimated, for instance, and helped drive up spending. VDOT officials also did not make clear to Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun officials -- who were paying $10 million of the bill -- that the state was creating an expensive new program that would need constant funding for new computers, additional staff and maintenance.
"I call this the 'infinite contract,' because you'll always have more intersections and signals to put in," said Jeris White, a former Washington Redskins cornerback who runs VDOT's signal system.
Such an attitude, local officials said, exposes a chronic VDOT shortcoming: undisciplined spending.
"If you assume your estimates can always be revised and contracts can always be amended without any consequences, the cost is bound to go up," said Katherine K. Hanley, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She added that local officials were "stunned" when VDOT officials told them in May that the cost of the signal system had nearly doubled.
Missteps and errors ignited bitter arguments inside the project team as well. VDOT and its main partner, Alcatel Contracting Inc., traded enough heated memos, meeting notes and contract revisions to fill two file cabinets at VDOT's Northern Virginia headquarters near Fair Oaks Mall.
"The sooner we get that outfit off the streets of Northern Virginia, the better!" VDOT traffic engineer Tim Pagano wrote his superiors at one point early in the project.
Alcatel shot back, accusing VDOT of "indecisiveness," "inability to manage" and "inadequate and arbitrary review" of the signal system design.
Of the 15 people at the first meeting in 1994, 10 were no longer around when the project was completed -- a higher-than-usual turnover of key personnel, according to VDOT officials. The original project manager quit after 18 months, taking a state-sponsored early retirement plan that has decimated VDOT's engineering ranks. Her replacement was transferred to another VDOT job after only five months.
Pagano, who designed the original system, also took the state buyout.
The signal system contract also showed how the agency has had trouble adapting to a shifting role. VDOT's historical mission has been the design, construction and maintenance of roads and bridges. But in heavily developed areas like Northern Virginia, where many existing roads can't be widened, the emphasis now is on managing traffic better through high technology. VDOT has had to bring on expensive consultants to finish the signal system because its own staff wasn't trained for such a project.
"When you're working with a new animal like this, I knew that [project] wasn't going to get done in two years," said Mary Jo Howell, the first VDOT manager of the project, who signed the pledge to finish in that amount of time. "When we started, I had no reason to believe it wasn't possible and doable, but as time progressed, it didn't surprise me it would take more than two years, because the technology kept changing so quickly."
Most Northern Virginia traffic signals are set for different conditions, such as rush and non-rush hours. But the signal timings cannot be quickly adjusted when traffic conditions change, which helps explain why the region's roads are among the most congested in the nation.
When the new system is operating fully, computers housed in cabinets and detectors embedded in the pavement will collect instant data about the number of vehicles at each of more than 800 intersections. The data will be relayed to a central control room at VDOT's Northern Virginia offices, where traffic engineers will adjust the signals to meet current conditions.
If an accident shuts down Interstate 95, for example, traffic could be diverted to Route 1, where the time that lights remain green automatically would be increased to move the additional traffic.
However, the new, more effective timing programs have yet to be put in at most intersections. VDOT's own engineers are adjusting some of the signals -- about 10 percent so far have been set with the new programs -- but the agency is planning to pay $1.5 million to a consultant to finish the job in the next year. Until then, drivers won't know whether the system is making much of a difference.
Low Bidder Alcatel won the $11.5 million contract as the lowest bidder among six in the fall of 1993, with the work starting Jan. 25, 1994. At the outset, local officials said they were told the traffic signal system would cost about $15 million, which included Alcatel's $11.5 million contract and an additional $3.5 million to cover telecommunications lines installed by Bell Atlantic.
A VDOT review of the project's costs after it was finished shows how expenses escalated and delays set in.
"It is clear at the onset of the contract that there would be gross overruns" because of "unrealistic" estimates of supplies needed, according to the review.
Junction boxes were one example. The boxes link wire from the vehicle detectors embedded in the street to a computer at each intersection. VDOT engineers initially thought that only 250 new boxes would be needed to cover the initial batch of 702 intersections, figuring that boxes in place for existing wiring could be used at most locations.
The estimate turned out to be off because many of the old junction boxes needed to be replaced. The contractor wound up using 1,079 junction boxes -- not the 250 estimated -- at $328 each, adding $272,000 to the costs.
Similar overruns occurred with conduit, a protective tube for electrical wire, and the wiring itself. In all, supply costs were so wildly underestimated that they led to a $5.6 million overrun.
The memos give insight into how great and small issues stymied the project. The contractor couldn't find enough police officers willing to work overtime to direct traffic at intersections while workers were installing the system. What officers they did find, however, logged so many hours that the police overtime budget was busted.
Squirrels ate a cable, causing $3,000 in damage. Both sides sparred over who was responsible for the cost. In the end, Alcatel paid.
In the first two years, VDOT paid Alcatel $10.6 million. By March 1996, Alcatel's $11.5 million budget was exceeded, with two years to go. The final amount paid to Alcatel is being negotiated, but it probably will be about $17 million. An additional $10 million will go to other contractors, some of whom were hired after the initial signal contract was awarded.
At no time in the four-year life of the project was a VDOT official reprimanded for exceeding the budget. Cost overruns are approved internally; VDOT managers don't have to face elected officials, as in local governments when an expensive change is made in a project.
VDOT officials insist that they hold their employees and contractors accountable.
"There's not just an open checkbook," said David Fitzgerald, the third and last VDOT manager on the traffic signal system contract. "Requests for additional work must undergo a work order, which has to be justified, financed and approved."
VDOT has rejected many of the requests Alcatel has made for additional payment since the contract ended, which Fitzgerald said proves his point.
Alcatel blamed VDOT for the bloated budget and delays. Midway through the project, the state added 91 intersections at a cost of $2.3 million.
Alcatel officials also said the state took too long awarding the contract to Bell Atlantic for installation of the system's communications lines.
"There were frustrations on both sides," said Charles Willingham, head of Alcatel Contracting during the project, but "this job is not viewed as a 'problem job' " within Alcatel. The company was satisfied with the profit it made on the project, Willingham said, though he declined to be more specific.
However, the contractor, a subsidiary of the French telecommunications giant Alcatel, now says it would not build another computerized traffic system, despite having bid on the Virginia project to gain a toehold in the market. The company says it wants to focus on telecommunications instead of contracting.
Early Warnings VDOT was not without warning that it was headed for trouble. Its own engineers sounded alarms about the safety and reliability of the signal system.
Of particular concern was an emergency device that activates flashing lights when the signals fail at an intersection. The device -- which engineers call the most critical safety feature in the signal system -- did not always pass tests, which would mean that drivers could potentially come upon an intersection with dead signals. Worse, an intersection could show green signals in all directions, which the device is supposed to prevent.
VDOT and Alcatel argued for a year over whether the device met the project's specifications, an exchange that pushed back the completion date to September 1997.
In the midst of the dispute, VDOT brought in a mediator to referee a meeting between the two sides at a hotel near Dulles International Airport. As they arrived, the participants were handed a syrupy poem called "Life," in which a train passenger says if fate brings a traveler "by your side, let's be pleasant travelers, it's so short a ride."
The ride became more pleasant after Alcatel put in improved safety devices -- at the state's expense.
But the journey stalled again last year when it was time to test the signal system. Alcatel submitted six testing plans during 1997, but VDOT, with the advice of outside consultants, rejected every one as inadequate.
By the time Alcatel submitted an acceptable testing plan, the company had passed its revised Sept. 1, 1997, deadline for completion and was being fined $3,000 a day by VDOT for the delays. And when Alcatel's part of the project ended April 30, the company had amassed a $366,000 fine for delays.
VDOT and the contractor also have spent five months tied up over an additional $600,000 in supplies, equipment and work that both sides contend the other must pay. And VDOT hauled the contractor back this summer to make repairs after the system crashed, throwing off signals in three counties.
"I have told [Alcatel] I don't have time to go through all the issues of finger-pointing, etc. I have to get the system back up and running," Ken Wester, a senior VDOT official, wrote his superiors in Richmond after the August incident.
VDOT's top executive, David R. Gehr, said high-technology projects such as the Northern Virginia signal system are a challenge for any company today because of the constant change in computer hardware and software. He recently created a new high-level position within VDOT to deal with such projects.
Thomas F. Farley, head of VDOT's Northern Virginia office, said the department's biggest error was failing to retain outside consultants earlier, since VDOT's engineers weren't completely trained in the new technology.
"Could we have done things differently? I can't argue with that," Farley said. "In the long run, this system will pay dividends -- if we can operate and maintain it."
But no one has a clear picture of the costs of operating and maintaining the system. Engineers say the state will have to replace software and hardware constantly. Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William are still growing; about 50 new intersections will need to be wired into the system every year, officials say.
"VDOT better be prepared for monstrous maintenance costs once Alcatel completes," Rock Newman, another consultant hired by VDOT, jotted down during a meeting last year on the signal project.
County government officials say they feel as though they've been left out of the loop. Hanley said that VDOT has given them a few reports on the signal system but that recently, "it's been in never-never land."
Alcatel, meanwhile, is not finished in Northern Virginia. The company also was the low bidder on a separate VDOT contract to upgrade the system of TV cameras and electronic message signs posted on major highways to help manage traffic.
That project is six months behind schedule, according to VDOT, and $10 million over budget.
TOMORROW: How one county went around VDOT.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.
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