Seven out of every 10 highway construction projects completed in Virginia during the past six months were finished late, and almost one-third ended more than four months behind schedule, the state's top transportation official reported today.
Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet delivered the grim news to his board of directors in what he described as the agency's first-ever quarterly performance report.
"Everything we have learned is telling us that time is our enemy. Time is what we need to learn to do better," Shucet told members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Given the department's motto of building roads "On Time, On Budget," Shucet conceded that his report "is not real good in terms of on-time performance."
Shucet's report continues his effort to document the difficulties at VDOT, which has struggled for years to keep up with demands to build and rebuild roads and bridges. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) came into office contending that the agency was virtually broke and was promising more than it could deliver.
Today, Shucet said, the department still has a cash shortage, a problem that caused transportation officials to panic during the late 1990s. As of this morning, he said, the department had about a week's worth of cash for construction and maintenance.
In addition, he told board members that 40 percent of construction projects finished between July and September cost more than projected, an indication that the agency still does not have a firm grasp of estimating the costs of building roads, interchanges and bridges.
The problems will persist in the near future, he said. Only 29 percent of ongoing construction projects are on track to meet their future deadlines, and 40 percent are over budget.
But Shucet urged the board to look past the poor numbers and focus on the fact that it is now getting an honest appraisal of the department's challenges.
"There's information here that certainly won't be cause for celebration," Shucet said. "The celebration is the report. Focus on the fact that we are presenting for the first time a true . . . quarterly report."
Board members largely accepted Shucet's explanation, praising him for correcting what they said was a lack of honest information presented to the board in the past. Harry T. Lester, a board member from Hampton Roads, said he expects VDOT to improve.
"The headline on this ought to be that we really are headed in the right direction," Lester said.
Kenneth Klinge, a board member from Northern Virginia, said the panel now has a clear understanding of what he called "the fundamental problems" in the sprawling, 10,000-person department.
"You do not change a culture overnight," Klinge said. "The fact that we are doing things we didn't do a year ago is very positive."
There was a bit of good news in Shucet's report.
The number of "work orders" -- changes in projects that increase the costs after they have begun -- has decreased in the past three years, he reported. In 2000, the cost of projects across the state increased by $82.3 million after the contracts were signed. Last year, that figure was $38.3 million.
He also said the department is doing well in complying with environmental regulations during road construction. "I am pretty proud of this performance," he said.
But he focused on the department's challenges and said he won't be satisfied until its performance improves.
Critics of the department, including county officials and lawmakers, said they intend to give Shucet more time to meet the goals. Shucet, who worked for a road engineering firm, was hired by Warner in April to take over VDOT.
Young Ho Chang, the director of transportation for Fairfax County, has frequently criticized VDOT for failing to accurately convey to the public its budget and its road-building schedule. He praised Shucet for his honesty.
"If anyone says you are 30-some percent toward your goal, you do have a long way to go," he said. "It's sure nice to get a true picture of how construction projects and maintenance projects are being handled."
Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he is confident that the agency will improve.
"VDOT has been struggling to maintain its core functions, but I believe the department can and will do better," Rollison said.