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Metro’s IG finds new problems with Silver Line construction

Workers walk along tracks at the rail yard at Dulles International Airport as the second phase of construction continues along Metro's Silver Line on July 11. Construction issues have long plagued the rail project.
Workers walk along tracks at the rail yard at Dulles International Airport as the second phase of construction continues along Metro's Silver Line on July 11. Construction issues have long plagued the rail project. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Metro’s inspector general said problems with track work and concrete structures on the troubled Silver Line rail project could create significant cost and operational issues and is urging the transit agency not to accept control of the line until the issues are resolved.

In management alerts issued Friday, Metro Inspector General Geoffrey A. Cherrington said a sealant being applied to prevent water from seeping into hundreds of defective concrete panels may not be working. A sampling of sealant already in place found it was not working in all cases, leaving some panels vulnerable to cracking. Unless the panels are replaced or the contractor comes up with another solution, Metro should not accept the work, he advised.

Cherrington’s team also identified problems at the rail yard that is being built concurrently with the rail line. He said Metro’s consultants found too many small pieces of rock in the ballast for track beds that could cause drainage issues and lead to the rocks shifting. That movement, unless fixed, could cause the track to shift as trains travel on it.

Both issues if not properly addressed, “will create extraordinary cost, maintenance and operational issues early once WMATA takes ownership and control of this project,” Cherrington wrote.

Metro will operate the rail line, but its construction is being overseen by a separate entity, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which has faced questions about its management of the project.

Metro’s inspector general has been conducting an independent review of work on the $5.8 billion rail project since a series of problems surfaced last year. His final report is expected later this year, but Cherrington said the two issues were of such importance that Metro management should be made aware of them now.

The second phase of the Silver Line, one of the largest rail projects currently under construction in the United States, is already more than a year behind schedule on plans that would extend it into Loudoun County.

A separate letter sent Friday to MWAA chief executive Jack Potter from Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld raised additional concerns about the Silver Line work, noting that “there have been a series of significant quality related issues with certain elements of the project.”

“Of critical concern to Metro are multiple material unresolved performance and construction deficiencies,” Wiedefeld continued.

Wiedefeld said the transit agency’s own consultants have found that plates in special track work at rail crossovers fall short of Metro’s standards.

Why have there been so many problems with the Silver Line’s second phase?

“The bottom line is everything has to be safe,” he said. “It has to meet the standards.”

Metro officials said they have spent more than $100,000 on outside consultants to evaluate work on the Silver Line.

Charles Stark, executive director of the Silver Line rail project, said he had not seen the management alerts from Metro’s inspector general but is aware of the issues Wiedefeld’s letter raised. He said MWAA shares those concerns.

“We haven’t put together a response at this point,” Stark said of Wiedefeld’s letter.

Wiedefeld’s letter comes at a time when the two major contractors on the project — Capital Rail Constructors and Hensel Phelps — are scrambling to complete work on the rail line’s second phase.

Both contractors have already missed critical deadlines for completing their work. CRC, which was supposed to have finished construction on the main rail line Aug. 7, now says the work likely won’t be done until May. The contractor missed the August deadline despite receiving 13 additional months to finish the project after design changes related to storm-water management were made.

“Capital Rail Constructors (CRC) has just received WMATA’s OIG’s alert and we are in the process of reviewing and assessing the information,” said Keith Couch, project director for CRC. “At this time, we continue to proceed with the previously accepted solution and are applying sealant to the panels. CRC’s priority is to work closely with MWAA and WMATA to agree on viable solutions that bring the Phase 2 of the Silver Line to a successful completion. We are confident that we can arrive at a solution that satisfies WMATA’s expectations for safety, quality, performance, and long-term maintenance for project.”

Hensel Phelps’s work on the rail yard was supposed to have been completed in December 2018. But the contractor now says it doesn’t expect to complete the job until next July. Officials with the company did not respond to requests for comment Friday on the inspector general’s findings.

A new set of problems for the Silver Line: this time it’s the tracks

The Silver Line’s second phase has been beset by construction problems.

Officials in April 2018 discovered problems with hundreds of precast concrete panels that were installed at five of the six stations being built for the rail line’s second phase. An investigation determined that the concrete used for the panels did not meet quality standards. The defect could lead to water seepage and premature deterioration of the station walls.

A month later, a whistleblower lawsuit alleged that the company that manufactured the panels, Universal Concrete, had falsified quality reports. One person pleaded guilty in connection with the case, and the company eventually settled the suit for $1 million.

CRC said that the problem could be resolved by applying a special sealant to the panels, but tests on panels treated with the coating found that the coating was not sufficient in at least 20 percent of sampled panels. Stark said that the panels will be retreated and retested.

“I appreciate these urgent management alerts from the WMATA inspector general regarding substandard contractor work on the Silver Line,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said. “This is the kind of oversight work we expect from the WMATA IG, and why I have consistently advocated for greater resources and independence for the ­WMATA IG, including in the Metro Accountability and Investment Act.”

Silver Line trains that were originally set to begin running in January 2020 probably won’t start carrying passengers until mid- to late 2020. Phase 2 is 11.5 miles long and has six stations, including one at Dulles International Airport, and will for the first time extend Metro into Loudoun County. It has a budget of roughly $2.8 billion.

Project officials said they don’t expect the second phase to go over budget, but they concede they have not tallied the costs for the months of additional delays and change orders that have accumulated since construction began five years ago. Those costs could easily eat into the project’s roughly $550 million contingency fund.

Concrete problems continue to plague the Silver Line

Dulles Toll Road users shoulder an increasing share of the Silver Line’s costs

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