The Montgomery County Council unhappily approved an additional $7.5 million Tuesday for construction of the Silver Spring Transit Center, a sum that officials said doesn’t begin to address the cost of repairing structural problems that have delayed its opening for more than two years.
It brings the price tag for the project, envisioned as a hub for MARC trains, Metrorail and buses in the heart of Silver Spring and initially estimated at $35 million, to $119 million, with more to come. Members took turns pronouncing the center “a black eye,” “an embarrassment” and a “nightmare.”
“All of us are unhappy about our experience with this transit center,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), chairman of the council’s transportation committee. “None of us are pleased that it is this far behind schedule, this much over cost and that we have an uncertain path before us.”
Engineering consultants retained by the county reported last month that while the three-level structure can be fixed, it is plagued by weak concrete in some spots and insufficient steel reinforcement in others. County officials are evaluating potential fixes suggested by the consultants, KCE Structural Engineers. The county has yet to say what the repairs might cost.
County officials told council members Tuesday that the $7.5 million, which will come from the sale of general obligation bonds, has been spent. The report from KCE cost about $1.7 million. There are also legal fees and the additional costs of operating an interim transit center during the protracted construction period. The extra funding also reflects the cost of “change orders” requested by general contractor Foulger-Pratt — at least some, the company says, because of difficulties with the design of the building, devised by Parsons Brinckerhoff.
The $7.5 million is only the latest in a series of cost overruns that have totaled about $40 million since 2008. These include the unanticipated cleanup of hazardous materials on the construction site, relocation of water and power lines, and problems drilling through bedrock to install foundation caissons.
Council members have expressed mounting dismay with management of the project — which was handled largely by private firms — and are pressing County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) for more transparency as the repairs progress. Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) has called for regular public briefings from the executive’s office. Her sentiment was echoed Tuesday.
“I do think we need a full autopsy on this project as soon as possible,” said council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) “And we really do have to rethink whether we made a mistake in our approach to letting out all the supervision of county projects to a private entity.” Elrich was apparently referring to Robert B. Balter Co., the firm that handled inspections and materials testing. But Elrich added that Balter appeared to have a top-notch record, which made it all the more bewildering that the transit center project is in its current condition.
Berliner cautioned that the likely round of litigation surrounding the project will restrict what the county can say publicly. But Elrich said that the county cannot afford to wait for the courts
“I’m not sure that understanding what happened has to wait until all the legal processes are settled,” Elrich said. “Because we could be back here in a decade when the final appeal is exhausted to do an utterly meaningless exercise.”