Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) repeated a pledge yesterday to complete the reconstruction of the Springfield interchange in no more than eight years despite recent revisions to the state's highway blueprint showing the project is now scheduled to last at least 9 1/2 years.
"The project started on time. It started in April, and it's still projected to finish in 2007," Gilmore said during a radio show on WTOP.
The governor said he was surprised by a report in The Washington Post yesterday that early construction work has been delayed because of difficulties with property acquisition, design and financing. The Post story also quoted state transportation officials as saying that they would make up for the delays by accelerating the later phases of construction.
Addressing the issue at the top of the hour-long radio show, Gilmore said: "I spoke to the head of VDOT this morning and said, 'Hey, I didn't know anything about this when it hit my breakfast table this morning. What's this all about?' He said, 'It's just not true.' "
But Northern Virginia legislators from both parties said yesterday they are concerned about the possibility that construction delays endured by motorists at the region's busiest crossroads would last longer than had been foreseen.
"The bottom line is this is taking too damn long," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax), co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "Why does it take 9 1/2 years to do this thing? It's mind-boggling. . . . I just can't understand why they can't get on top of this."
When ground was broken for the interchange project in April, state officials said that the work would be completed by spring 2007. But the time line included in the Virginia Department of Transportation's latest six-year road program shows that the state plans to begin the third of four construction stages in fall 2004 and complete it in fall 2008. There is no date for completing the entire project.
Dewey Litton, VDOT manager for the Springfield project, likewise said last week that the third stage is to begin in 2004 and will require about four years because of its complexity, in particular the number of bridges that must be erected. He said the state could accelerate this work to meet the eight-year commitment.
VDOT officials have cited several reasons for the early schedule changes. First, dozens of properties adjacent to the site were not acquired by the time the contractor started the first stage of the project, making that work more difficult. Second, unexpected difficulties in designing and financing construction of the next stage forced planners to delay it for two years.
"I'm not going to micromanage the project," Gilmore said during the radio program, "put my hard hat on out there and go figure out when they're going to pour which piece of concrete or buy what piece of property to get the thing done. The VDOT people have assured me it's on target. In fact, it's a little ahead right now."
Construction is proceeding so well, he said, that the state may have to pay a bonus of $10 million to the contractor, Shirley Contracting Corp. VDOT has promised the reward if the job is done nine months ahead of schedule.
But fellow Republicans were less sanguine about the project's progress. Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) said "fits and starts" were to be expected because VDOT tried to compress the work schedule from 12 years, as initially planned, to eight years. "We do have a problem in accelerating a major project like that," Rust said.
The sharpest criticism came from Democratic legislators, who are battling a Gilmore-led bid by the Republicans to take complete control of the General Assembly in the election Tuesday.
"It's a little bit shocking to me," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum of Fairfax County, who heads the state Democratic Party. "What's especially distressing to me is I'm not sure the governor is on top of it. If things happen as they sometimes do, will 9 1/2 years become something more?"
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he had never expected the state to keep its eight-year commitment because the last two Republican governors have left VDOT understaffed and underfunded.
"Without the highway people to manage the project, certainly they're going to fall behind," he said. "The fantasy that they can do it without any money is catching up with the governor."
Saslaw and other Democrats said they were especially concerned to learn that VDOT had directed the contractor to begin work this spring though the state had not acquired 61 parcels of adjacent land. Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), a former state transportation secretary, said that miscue alone calls into question whether the state will deliver the rest of the mammoth interchange project in a timely fashion.
"I'm just amazed," Watts said. "If this elemental and basic step wasn't done, how can we believe all the other plans that have been presented?"
CAPTION: During a radio show, Gov. James S. Gilmore III says the Springfield interchange will be finished in 2007.