Bypass costs underestimated in advance of CTB vote
An unofficial estimate for construction of the Western Bypass is more than double the amount members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board were told by Virginia Department of Transportation officials in July before they voted to resume funding of the 6.2 mile highway.
Internal documents released under the Freedom of Information act reveal that VDOT engineers calculated a cost estimate of $436 million in late June, several weeks before CTB members voted to allocate $197 million to the project.
The documents were obtained by the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition (CATCO) and provided to Charlottesville Tomorrow. VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter has confirmed the validity of the information.
So far, $46.7 million has been spent on preliminary engineering and purchase of right of way. The CTB vote included $7.4 million to finish preliminary engineering, $71.7 million to complete right of way acquisition, and $118 million to complete construction.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton has announced he hopes VDOT can advertise bids by the end of this month for a contractor to complete design and build the project.
However, the released documents call into question whether enough money has been allocated to the project because internal estimates are much more detailed than those on which the CTB vote was based.
When it was revived at Connaughton’s direction earlier this year, engineers in VDOT’s Culpeper District estimated the project would have a total cost of $233 million. That figure was based on a non-Interstate type design, and only factored in $3.7 million for utility relocation.
VDOT engineer Mohammad Mirshahi, who works in VDOT’s central office, wrote in a June 20 email that he was “uncomfortable” with the estimate developed by engineers in the Culpeper District.
“There is no backup information to support it,” Mirshahi wrote.
A second preliminary cost estimate by engineers in VDOT’s central office raised the unofficial cost estimate to $273 million. The estimate increased by an additional $10 million for routing the highway through “mountainous terrain,” and by adding $24 million for an interstate-type design.
Interstate-quality highways have larger paved shoulders and signage must be placed further back from travel lanes. That increases the cost of a road because more surface area must be paved and potentially involves the purchase of more land for right of way.
In early summer, the project was further scrutinized. An estimate developed by VDOT central office in late June raised the estimate to $436 million.
This estimate factored in a cost of at least $46 million to excavate 3 million cubic meters of land, as well as $76 million to extract 340,000 cubic meters of rock. This third estimate also added $26 million for more accurate bridge costs.
None of this information was made available to members of the CTB.
An internal update sent to VDOT engineers and staff on July 26 further broke down the $436 million estimate.
- $20 million remains to be spent on preliminary engineering.
- The right of way cost estimate was put at $70 million.
- Construction cost for a design-build contractor is estimated at $280 million.
- Construction and engineering inspection services is calculated at $23 million, or 8 percent of construction.
- There is a 10% contingency figure of $28 million.
- $15 million is estimated for stormwater management, utilities and lighting.
That leaves VDOT with a need to identify at least $191.8 million in further funding to complete the project as currently proposed.
Members of CATCO said in a press release Tuesday that the differing numbers represent a deliberate manipulation of information.
“It is obvious that this project will cost substantially more than has been presented and approved,” read the press release. “In light of these gross understatements of cost on which approval of the project was based… the Commonwealth Transportation Board should reconsider this project.”
EXCAVATION COSTS DETAILED
The biggest reason for the higher cost estimate is that the first two estimates did not take into account the cost of removing a significant portion of Stillhouse Mountain to make way for the road.
A June 24 email from VDOT engineer Jeffrey Cutright reveals that Matthew T. Cross, a standards engineer with VDOT, believed it would cost between $300 to $400 per cubic yard for excavation based on the blasting that will need to occur. The initial estimate produced by Culpeper District engineers used a much smaller figure.
“It is apparent that rock excavation is one of the cost drivers,” wrote Jim Utterback in a July 29 email. “The unit price for rock excavation is nearly twice what the [location and design] folks in the district thought it should be.”
A risk analysis performed as part of the July 26 update said there was a high likelihood that uncertainty over the extent of necessary rock excavation would pose a problem.
“Geotechnical data is insufficient to determine amount and integrity of rock excavation required. This will influence the cost of rock excavation, the earthwork quantities, and slope design. Contract will add cost of this risk to the bid,” Cutright wrote in the analysis.
The risk analysis also highlights other uncertainties about the project.
Cutright wrote that the Federal Highway Administration may need to approve each terminus because there are rules that determine how interchanges that lead to limited access highways are designed. He also added states that the current design for the southern terminus could be insufficient to handle projected traffic volumes.
“This could result in extensive review time, design adjustments and associated delay and cost,” Cutright wrote.
However, Nancy Singer with the FHWA said that a formal report will not need to be required for the termini, but the agency will be watching.
“Since the project uses highway federal-aid funds, however, FHWA would have to approve the configuration of the project, including the interchanges,” Singer said.
Cutright also wrote that VDOT has only used design-build contracts for smaller projects and that doing so for the bypass could lead to errors being written into the contract with the eventual contractor.
“Single phase, low-bid design build contract is likely to create industry criticism due to contract size and short response periods,” Cutright continued.
VDOT Commissioner Gregory A. Whirley said in a phone interview that the disparity in the two estimates should not be surprising.
“The estimate from central office was prepared assuming the ultimate design,” Whirley said. “In other words it was over-engineered on both ends of the bypass. That would account for a big part of the difference between the two estimates.”
Whirley said the true cost of the project will only be known once the RFP is put out to bid, which will occur later this month.
“Let the competition take a look at the project and give us an estimate of what it would cost,” Whirley said. “We think it can be simplified substantially to reduce the cost.”
He added that VDOT has been seeing projects come in between 15% and 30% below the engineer’s estimate.
“I quite frankly think it will come in at the lower end because we want to leave it up to the creativity of our private sector partners to design both ends of that bypass so it makes sense and brings a good transportation project to the area,” Whirley said.
Whirley said he could not speculate as to whether the design speed for the road would be lowered in order to reduce the cost. He also did not say whether the design may be done at non-interstate quality.
“What we will do in the RFP is give criteria that we want any builder to bid against and we'll lay those out,” Whirley said. “We'll give them some flexibility but we still are going to retain the right to make certain we get the best solution out there.”
Whirley will review the RFP beginning on Friday and hopes to put it out to bid next week.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board will meet Wednesday and Thursday in Portsmouth. The western bypass is not on the agenda.
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