When the first phase of Metro’s Silver Line was under construction, large sections of track had to be built over the Capital Beltway. Workers had to bore a tunnel in the middle of Tysons, one of the busiest retail and office centers in the country. In the end, the 11.7-mile rail-line extension was completed six months late and more than $220 million over budget.
Officials were confident construction of Phase 2 would be much smoother. They were using a different contractor, there were fewer construction challenges, and they had learned many lessons from the first phase.
Fast-forward five years, and construction of the final portion of the $5.8 billion rail line, which was expected to be wrapped up next month, may not be completed until next spring or summer. Trains that were originally set to begin running in January probably won’t start carrying passengers until mid-to-late 2020.
Executives in charge of the project are at a loss to explain the delay.
“It’s hard to say why we need that extra time beyond August 7 at this point,” said Charles Stark, executive director of the rail project, referring to the date when the contractor was expected to complete work. “But we are investigating why the project is coming in late.”
The project has been plagued by construction problems: cracks in concrete structures, defective rail ties, a rail-yard platform that had to be ripped out because it was built to the wrong dimensions, and a Justice Department investigation involving a subcontractor.
But Stark said those issues aren’t necessarily to blame for the delay.
The lack of answers is frustrating to Metro officials. While the transit agency will manage and operate the rail line once completed, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) is managing its construction.
“Considering this is the second phase, you would have thought it would have gone a lot smoother,” said Metro board member Christian Dorsey. “But that hasn’t happened.”
Officials at the transit agency say they will not assume responsibility for the extension until they are certain it meets their standards.
The first phase of the project, four stations in Tysons and one in Reston, was built by a consortium led by Bechtel and opened July 26, 2014. Phase 2 is 11.5 miles and has six stations, including one at Dulles International Airport, and will for the first time extend Metro into Loudoun County.
Virginia spent decades lobbying to build the 23-mile rail line, one of the largest infrastructure projects of its kind under construction in the United States.
The second leg is being built by Capital Rail Constructors (CRC), a joint venture between Bethesda, Md.-based Clark Construction Group and Kiewit Infrastructure Group. Colorado-based Hensel Phelps was hired to build the rail yard. The firms are all well known and highly regarded in the industry.
The companies were selected by the MWAA not only for their technical know-how, but also because they said they could build the rail-line extension and yard for less than their competitors. In both cases, the consortium’s bids were below the MWAA’s estimates for the project.
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.
Any budget overages could have a significant impact on users of the Dulles Toll Road. The MWAA is using revenue from tolls to fund nearly half the cost to build the line. By 2053, when the last of the bonds sold to fund the project are paid off, most drivers will be paying $12.50 for a one-way trip on the 14-mile highway. Should the project go significantly over budget, they could be paying more.
Experts say it’s not unusual for companies, even large, experienced firms like Clark, Kiewit and Hensel Phelps, to run into problems with a project this size. Even though Clark and Hensel Phelps have worked on Metro projects in the past, the Silver Line is by far the largest either has undertaken for the transit agency.
“It’s just hard to do big projects like this,” said C. William Ibbs, a professor of construction management at the University of California at Berkeley and president of the Ibbs Consulting Group. The problems encountered building the Silver Line are unfortunate, but not unusual, he added.
In Honolulu, a project to build a 20-mile elevated rail system is five years behind schedule and its budget has grown from $4 billion to more than $8 billion. The cost to build a high-speed rail system to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco more than doubled from its original estimate of $33 billion and was already 13 years behind schedule when the state’s governor announced this year that the project would be dramatically scaled back.
Meanwhile, the contracting team building Maryland’s Purple Line says the project is at least a year behind schedule, and the companies and state officials are still negotiating over costs. The contractor has said it can open the 16-mile light-rail line in spring 2023, but only if the state pays an additional $200 million to $300 million to offset delays and accelerate work.
A study by Oxford University professor Bent Flyvbjerg found that nine out of 10 mega projects — those that cost more than $1 billion to build — exceeded their budgets. And transportation projects, he said, went over budget an average of 44.7 percent.
Flyvbjerg said such projects are complicated, but also may suffer because when companies are competing on price, they may underestimate the cost and time it will take to complete them.
But overpromising and underdelivering comes with a significant downside, particularly for large publicly funded infrastructure projects like the Silver Line.
“Cost and schedule overruns tend to erode public support and public trust and lead to a certain cynicism with the public about decisions to build these types of projects,” Ibbs said.
And officials can’t afford to lose public support for such endeavors, said Edward Merrow, chief executive of Independent Project Analysis, a firm that specializes in the development and execution of mega projects.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that the United States needs to spend $4.5 trillion by 2025 to improve the state of its roads, bridges, dams, airports and other infrastructure.
The problems with Phase 2 started early. Just months after construction began, MWAA officials decided they would comply with new state and federal rules regarding storm-water management, rather than attempt to have the project “grandfathered” in under previous requirements. They said the required modifications would delay the project by 13 months. The delay also added roughly $137 million to the cost.
Merrow, who studies how to improve how mega projects are built, said the decision to incorporate the changes after the contract had been signed and CRC had already begun design work was a setback that may have proved too difficult for the contractor to overcome. However, Stark said the airports authority has done everything it can to reduce the impact on CRC. For example, it reduced the 25 to 28 storm-water treatment ponds that had to be built by CRC by more than half, to 12, and hired another contractor to do the remaining work.
CRC ran into other unanticipated problems. For example, to provide utilities, including water and electricity, to the stations, workers had to tunnel under the Dulles Toll Road for cabling work. But the rock proved to be harder than anticipated, so the company had to abandon plans to use boring machines. Tons of rock had to be dug out by hand and carried out in five-gallon buckets.
And then there was the concrete.
In July 2015, inspectors discovered cracks in the girders designed to support the aerial tracks at the Dulles Airport station. Work was suspended until contractors could determine the cause for the cracking.
Then, in April 2018, there were problems with hundreds of precast concrete panels that were installed at five of the six stations. 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.
The panels had to be reinspected and are now undergoing a special treatment designed to ensure they will meet the 100-year life requirement under the terms of CRC’s contract.
In December 2018, officials confirmed problems with the concrete rail ties that had been installed at track crossovers along the rail line. The ties had too much curvature in them, which could potentially cause trains to tilt outward as they transition from one track to another. CRC has proposed several fixes but has yet to reach an agreement with the MWAA and Metro over how to deal with the problem.
Then, earlier this year, there were more problems with concrete, this time at the Dulles Airport station, where cracks were found in the concrete pedestals that support the station’s glass wall and windscreens. CRC officials said they have developed a fix and are awaiting approval from the MWAA and Metro.
“Issues come up,” said Keith Couch, project director for CRC. “This is not like building a house. This is a complex endeavor.”
Construction of the rail yard has proved even more problematic. The yard was supposed to be completed in December 2018, but officials at Hensel Phelps now say they expect to complete work in July 2020.
Last summer, hundreds of cracks were found in concrete panels installed on buildings in the rail yard, where Metro will store and maintain trains. Officials also discovered that a platform at a building where Metro will park trains had been built to the wrong dimensions. The platform had to be removed and rebuilt.
The discoveries led to angry letters between the MWAA and officials at Hensel Phelps.
Stark criticized Hensel Phelps’s quality-assurance program, saying it appeared to be “ineffective or nonexistent.”
“The lack of attention by HP to quality and construction detail has led to an abnormal amount of rework and delay to precast completion; instead of redoubling its efforts to improve the quality inspection of incoming material and subcontractor decisions, HP has submitted monthly schedules with ever-increasing delays it attempts to attribute to minor MWAA changes,” Stark said in the October letter.
HP responded in a terse letter to MWAA chief executive Jack Potter.
“The claims Mr. Stark makes regarding Hensel Phelps quality control performance are unfounded and inconsistent with the project performance and record to date,” wrote Jeff Wenaas, the company’s president and chief executive.
“The schedule delays impacting the project are the result of MWAA’s mismanagement and slow response to issues that arise on the project,” Wenaas continued. “There have been countless meetings to discuss this and seek ways to improve issue resolution, but all efforts have gone unanswered and the project continues to suffer as a result.”
Despite the ongoing tensions, Michael Barker, operations manager at Hensel Phelps, said the company remains committed to working with the MWAA.
In the end, however, it will be up to Metro to determine when the project has been completed to the transit agency’s standards.
“Our main concern is that they have to get it right,” said Metro board member Michael Goldman, who represents Maryland and chairs the board’s safety and operations committee.
Added Dorsey, who represents Virginia, “The sentiment of the board is that we are not going to sacrifice the long-term needs just to get the project done.”