Pr. William Bypasses VDOT, Builds Parkway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 1998; Page A1
Last of three articles
Prince William County waited years for state transportation officials to approve money for a much-needed cross-county road to link the populous east side with the rural west. But then as worries grew about the state's ability to build new roads without long delays and huge cost overruns, local leaders found another solution:
They built the road themselves.
At the time, it was a radical idea in a state where the Virginia Department of Transportation was responsible for building and maintaining virtually every stop sign, speed bump and freeway.
But Prince William's main route for crossing the county, Davis Ford Road, was a twisting, two-lane road that had been the scene of several fatal accidents. In the afternoon, the county's many school buses tied up traffic as they slowly made their way along the road. Snow and ice storms virtually cut the county in two.
So, said Robert Wilson, Prince William's public works director, county officials decided they could build the road faster and more efficiently than VDOT.
"I had a lot of confidence in the ability of the county to manage the design and construction of that road," Wilson said. "We did what we said we would do. We delivered the road on time and under budget."
Using creative financing, including bond money approved by voters and a special tax on Potomac Mills businesses that would benefit from the new road, the county found the money for what eventually became the Prince William Parkway.
In 1988, voters approved $51 million for the parkway, which was planned at that time to be a widening of Davis Ford Road. In 1990, after a citizens group persuaded county officials to instead build a new road through the heavily wooded center of the county, voters approved an additional $43 million. About $20 million in federal funds also were used, primarily for construction of a major interchange at Interstate 95 and the parkway.
In three short years, the county's own public works staff managed construction of the four-lane, 14-mile road, finishing early and coming in about $8 million under budget. After building the project, Prince William transferred the road to the state, which now maintains it.
Board of County Supervisors Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D) said the road would have been delayed for years if Prince William had waited for VDOT and would have cost more.
"They are such a huge bureaucracy," she said. "Maybe they just can't achieve the efficiencies we can."
Fairfax County officials used the same financing method for the Fairfax County Parkway. The $600 million road project, which has taken almost two decades to plan and build, was paid for with a combination of state and federal funds and hundreds of millions of dollars in voter-approved bonds.
But unlike in Prince William, where county public works employees designed and managed the road, most of the construction of the Fairfax County Parkway was managed by VDOT through the agency's usual process.
Both Prince William and Fairfax have considered making a deal with VDOT for the counties to take over all construction and maintenance of roads -- something the head of VDOT's Northern Virginia office supports -- but the notion has always faltered because of concerns about whether it would cost local governments more.
The Six-Year Plan
At the heart of the Virginia Department of Transportation's mission -- and at the center of much of the criticism aimed at the department -- is its six-year plan for building roads, a pay-as-you-go system aimed at avoiding the costs of borrowing money for highway construction.
State officials tout it as the best way to set priorities for using limited resources. Each year, local governments lobby for their road projects to be included in the six-year plan, and when they succeed, a portion of the money needed is set aside. After enough money has accumulated over several years, construction begins.
"Construction projects are a dynamic process," said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shirley Ybarra. "You have a lot of constituencies to please as you go along."
That system works fine for smaller road projects, often found in rural parts of the state, local officials say. Widening a rural intersection, building a small street or adding a right-turn lane is easily funded.
But many of Northern Virginia's political leaders say the six-year plan is synonymous with delay in their rapidly growing counties, where massive new roads can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It could take 30 years to fund a large project on Interstate 66 or the Capital Beltway by using the state's six-year plan, they said.
"The six-year plan is sort of a joke. I don't think anybody follows it," said Jack Herrity, the former Republican chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors who pushed for the county's parkway for years. But Herrity said VDOT is not entirely to blame when it comes to delays that plague road projects. "Sure there's problems with bureaucracy at VDOT," he said. "But there's also problems with environmentalists, too."
Meanwhile, the costs of materials, labor, land and new regulations increase as VDOT waits for the money to add up before starting a project.
For example, Fairfax officials for years have wanted a cloverleaf interchange to replace the intersection at Lee Highway and Route 28 in Centreville. The $35.2 million project has been on the six-year plan for years, and the transportation department has set aside about $23.9 million so far.
Still, construction of the interchange will not begin until about 70 percent of the money has been set aside. Officials now estimate that bids might be solicited by October 1999, with construction to begin sometime in 2000 and completion two years later.
"To call it archaic is to be far too modern," Fairfax Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee) said of VDOT's method of financing. "I think there has to be fundamental change in how these projects are funded."
Most other states do things differently.
In Maryland, local and state governments borrow money for most projects by selling low-interest bonds. That costs interest on the borrowed money, but officials say it means roads are built faster.
Now many in Virginia say their state should adopt that kind of system because the pay-as-you-go method is too cumbersome and expensive.
Instead of arranging independent financing for each project, VDOT essentially funds statewide road building out of one giant pot of money -- VDOT Commissioner David R. Gehr calls the process "a rolling estimate." If a project costs more than was estimated, VDOT just goes back to the pot for more money until the road is finished. If a project takes longer than expected, VDOT just gives itself more time without having to justify why.
"The pay-as-you-go system has no incentive to do good estimates or manage the costs as you go along," said Shiva K. Pant, director of the Fairfax County Office of Transportation. "When you're doing it with this model, there's no accountability. Who do you have to go to when you need to say, 'I blew the estimate'?"
VDOT Defends Its Program
Department officials defend their record.
Delay is inherent in the process, they say, because large road construction projects are subject to the whims of weather, local and state politicians, contractors and regulators and the often unpredictable "not-in-by-back-yard" sentiment of the public.
"There are so many unknowns associated with this work," Gehr said. "Those are often due to our public involvement process."
But in addition to delays, critics say the typical road built by VDOT ends up costing many millions more than policymakers were originally told. By creating ever-moving targets for the cost of any road, state officials are able to avoid accountability when costs rise, critics say.
In 1995, state lawmakers were asked to approve bond financing for the addition of car-pool lanes to the Dulles Toll Road in Northern Virginia. VDOT told lawmakers the road would cost $49 million.
Three years later, the department acknowledged the road widening actually had cost $71 million, nearly a 45 percent increase. Counting a $4 million contingency built into the original estimate, the total overrun was more than $25 million.
Transportation officials defend that increase, and even dispute the term "overrun." Many of the so-called cost overruns that critics point to are often nothing more than changed circumstances -- necessary additions such as extra ramps, added lanes, higher sound walls or bigger bridges -- that increase the cost, they said.
In the case of the extra lane on the Dulles Toll Road, some of the extra cost was for a new ramp that airport officials insisted be installed after the project was designed, they said.
"It wasn't that the project was simply bid low and cost high," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), who defended the program at the time. "We have to recognize that the scope of the job changed."
Kauffman also defends VDOT's tendency to raise its cost estimates as projects go along. He said the higher costs usually reflect changes the department makes to improve a road's design.
For example, he said, a section of the Franconia-Springfield Parkway ended up costing more than originally thought because residents urged VDOT to widen the new road to six lanes rather than four.
"Every time the estimates have changed, they have been because of a change responding to a community concern," Kauffman said.
Critics acknowledge that some of the growth in costs is legitimate. Politicians often ask for extra features in road projects, and environmental laws sometimes change and increase costs.
But Pant said the lack of a single, fixed budget for a road project such as the Dulles Toll Road car-pool lanes makes it difficult to catch waste or fraud when it happens.
"VDOT has no concept of a project budget," Pant said. "When you don't have a budget, somewhere down the line you are trying to close out a project and you add up the numbers and you spent more than you thought."
Staff writer Stephen C. Fehr contributed to this report.
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