VDOT blunders

VDOT blundersRecords show faulty designs, contractor errors, mismanagement plague Peninsula road projectsTransportation departments need three things to build a road right – a clean design, a clear expression of what’s expected from contractors and a surefire way to guarantee quality.The Interstate 64 Mercury Boulevard interchange missed on all three, according to the project files.It’s not the only Peninsula road project to strike out on the basics. From an interstate interchange in Williamsburg to a two-lane bridge on Pembroke Avenue in Hampton, the Virginia Department of Transportation consistently has failed to cover its bases.Project files for the I-64 interchanges at Busch-Grove near Williamsburg and Jefferson Avenue in Newport News, as well as the Pembroke Avenue bridge, reveal a litany of faulty designs, insubordinate contractors and mismanaged job sites.At the Busch-Grove site, for example, a VDOT engineering supervisor said in February that design errors might have led to more than two-thirds of the $2.3 million in extra work and recommended that the agency demand reimbursement. The designer said last week no such demand had been made yet.KEEPING SCORE? Busch-Grove interchange* Original cost estimate: $28 million*Current tally: At least $33 million* Original deadline: Dec. 1, 1999* Completion date: Interchange open to traffic; minor finishes outstanding* Issues: Work more than four years behind schedule. VDOT identifies designer errors. Contractor scores 12 on VDOT 100-point performance appraisal. Contractor seeks Chapter 11 protection. VDOT declares contractor in default.Jefferson Ave. interchange* Original estimate: $33.5 million* Current tally: $52.4 million* Original deadline: June 1999* Completed: December 2001 * Issues: Steel beams buried with lead paint. More than a mile of pavement ripped up because it wouldn’t drain properly.Mercury Blvd. interchange* Original cost estimate: $64 million* Current tally: $87 million* Original deadline: May 17, 2004* Completion date: Current estimate: spring 2005* Issues: 2.5 miles of pavement won’t drain properly. Work continued after drainage problem was identified. Pembroke Ave. bridge* Original cost estimate: $5.8 million* Current tally: $7.1 million* Original deadline: November 2002* Completion date: Opened to traffic July 11; workers still must install lighting* Issues: Original plan omitted demolition of old bridge. Decorative lampposts wouldn’t fit on already-installed concrete bases.A governor’s concern over tourism dollars in 2001 might have kept the agency from removing a nearly bankrupt contractor on the same project, even though VDOT field staff had complained that the contractor wasn’t doing the work. The state finally removed the contractor in June 2003 – with work still outstanding on the project.Such an inability to make prompt decisions was one of the significant internal problems cited by VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet last week, when he acknowledged a history of blunders on the Mercury Boulevard project.VDOT top management wasted valuable time writing memos about that project, instead of fixing the 2.5 miles of road that doesn’t drain properly.Shucet said the indecision illustrated the problems at VDOT – an agency with a bureaucratic culture.The people in the VDOT hierarchy, he said, are often “too busy writing memos, covering their … positions.”He also said VDOT’s “strong, inherited culture leads people to walk the other way in face of critical decisions.”Those decisions have been made inside insulated offices in Richmond, instead of at grubby work sites – where, Shucet said, they should be made. It’s out in the field, he said, that even designers get a true idea of a project’s needs.A QUESTION OF DESIGNStanding out on I-64 near the Hampton Coliseum on Aug. 1 – days after learning that the newly paved highway wouldn’t drain properly – Shucet and Peninsula Resident Engineer Steven Hicks talked about the possibility that the improper roadwork could be the result of a design error.Often, Hicks said, designs are part of the last phase of a project.Shucet quite publicly begged to differ with that approach on Aug. 25, when he conducted a news conference to address the causes of the Mercury interchange drainage problems.”Good design,” Shucet said, “is the beginning, not the end.”And, he said, if one penny of the $2.7 million that the state will have to pay to fix the Mercury interchange drainage problem is traced to errors by Richmond-based designer Site-Blauvelt, the state will seek reimbursement.Site-Blauvelt officials said VDOT told them not respond to reporters’ questions but to refer reporters to the agency.A Daily Press review of public records on area road projects – thousands of documents including e-mails, letters, memos and scribbled notes – shows a series of very poor beginnings. On project after project, poor designs have added millions of dollars and months of work.For the Busch-Grove interchange project alone, VDOT District Construction Engineer John Neal said, errors by the designer – Pennsylvania-based Gannett Fleming Inc. – could have caused 23 of 39 work orders. Work orders are written approvals for added cost and construction.According to a memo that Neal wrote Feb. 5, 2003, those 23 work orders added an estimated $1.5 million to the project. He recommended that the state and contractor seek reimbursement.Neal acknowledges that the designer might not be responsible for the total bill. The exact amount, he wrote, would have to be determined.Those numbers and Neal’s memo were news to Larry Moore, the Virginia head of transportation in Gannett Fleming’s Newport News office.”I haven’t seen that,” he said. “And I would have been the one that it would have been sent to. We have not been approached. That may have been the start of a process. This sounds like one person’s interpretation.”Among the problems detailed in Neal’s memo:Bridge piles shown in the plans were too short for the type of soil that they were to be sunk into. The cost to lengthen them: $443,640.The designer failed to recognize that the contractor would have to take soil samples to determine the ground’s ability to support road signs. The additional cost for the tests and associated work: $393,640.The work required special drains with specifically designed pipes and manholes. The designer failed to note this on the plans, and the contractor had to dig up the normal drain that it had installed and replace it with the special one. The tally: $122,870.Some plans for state road projects omit seemingly obvious instructions.In October 2001, just one month after Waterfront Marine Construction of Virginia Beach was chosen to rebuild the Pembroke Avenue bridge over the Hampton River, the contractor noticed that the plans didn’t include a “demolition plan or pile extraction plan” for the old bridge.Waterfront wasn’t contractually obligated to come up with its own demolition plan but agreed to do it, instead of waiting for the state to take action, to minimize cost and time overruns.In a letter to the contractor, the state thanked Waterfront for its “cooperation in this matter and willingness to provide the information,” even though it was a “misunderstanding on our part.”Then, a few weeks before this year’s reopening of the bridge, workers noticed another glitch: The ornamental lampposts designed for the bridge wouldn’t fit on their already-installed concrete bases.On June 4 – seven months after the bridge was supposed to reopen – S.F. Durr, the state’s project engineer, sent a memo to another state official, explaining the “conflict that will result between the aluminum bridge railing and the base sections of the decorative fiberglass light poles.”The state resolved the issue by ordering new, smaller lampposts. As of last week, they had yet to be installed.It should come as little surprise that design issues plague VDOT. In July 2000 – two years before Shucet became VDOT’s commissioner – the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission reported about serious department errors regarding construction designs.”Given that design work can have a direct impact
on the cost of construction, it is an area which needs continued monitoring,” JLARC’s report said. “VDOT staff indicated that because projects currently under construction were designed years ago, information related to their quality is not likely to be indicative of current oversight practices.”Inadequate preliminary engineering is one of the reasons that final costs exceed original budgets, the commission said.Even private designers hired by the state as consultants agreed. A representative of a consultants’ association told JLARC that VDOT needed to increase its staffing to oversee design work.Some of those errors appear to be common-sense mistakes. For example, the report says, there were plan sheets that were in conflict with VDOT’s written list of accepted practices.VDOT can take consolation that it’s not the only state transportation agency grappling with poorly designed projects, according to a report released in May 2003 by the General Accounting Office – or GAO – the investigative arm of Congress.The GAO reported that around the country, road-project costs were careening out of control, partly because of poor designs that resulted in added work and costs. In many states, initial cost estimates were based on preliminary designs used for permitting purposes, the GAO reported. As projects moved along and the plans became more detailed, costs soared.Costs often grew out of control, the GAO said, because many of the designs used were “generally developed for the environmental review – whose purpose is to compare project alternatives, not to develop cost estimates.”MISSED SIGNALSInspectors overseeing the construction of the Mercury interchange project raised red flags as early as September 2002 about drainage problems in the 2.5 miles of road that later came into question. But the work continued.When Phil Leone, executive director of the state’s investigative commission, heard that the roadway might have to be ripped up because of the drainage problems, he said he couldn’t understand how the state let it get to that point. Someone, he said, should have addressed the issue before the head of the agency had to get involved.”Construction inspectors should be examining the roads,” Leone said earlier this month. “They should be out there every day. I don’t understand how they missed that.”They didn’t.Shucet said at his news conference last week that the people in the field did exactly what they were supposed to do.It was VDOT’s upper management, he said, that failed.Upper management failed in a similar manner four years ago, in another section of I-64.In 1999, two years after Florida-based Archer-Western Contractors began overhauling the Jefferson Avenue interchange, VDOT rejected more than a mile of freshly laid pavement.E.V. Williams Inc. of Virginia Beach, the primary contractor on the Mercury Boulevard interchange, was a subcontractor for the Jefferson project.Quintin Elliott, then the Peninsula resident engineer, told Archer-Western that E.V. Williams had improperly laid down the road and that it appeared that the slope and grade were off – which could cause drainage issues and lead to accidents.Unlike what happened with the Mercury Boulevard project, VDOT records from the Jefferson interchange don’t show anyone waving warning flags back then.Tom Partridge, E.V. Williams’ president, acknowledged problems with the roadway but said they could be fixed by milling and grinding the high and low spots.Those are the same problems – and, in part, the same solution – that developed at Mercury Boulevard.Partridge told Archer-Western in a letter dated Sept. 15, 1999, that Elliott wanted the road built according to the “rules of construction in heaven” and that his company would pay to rebuild the road if the state could prove that it was beyond repair. If it could not, Partridge said, he would seek reimbursement.Elliott said back then that if the rules in heaven were in the “VDOT Road and Bridge Specification” book, then, yes, that’s what he wanted.E.V. Williams hasn’t returned repeated telephone calls seeking comment.On the same project later that year, while work crews were removing dirt from one area of the project to fill another, they uncovered an old steel beam – covered with lead paint – that had been buried after its removal from the demolished Jefferson Avenue overpass.The plans had required that the lead paint be removed from the beam before its burial. According to project files, that never happened, and none of the project inspectors noticed.What VDOT inspectors find depends a great deal on what they’re looking for. Sometimes, for example, quality control isn’t a checkoff item.The Williamsburg VDOT office told a contractor in August 1999 that it didn’t have time to do quality control on the firm’s soil cement analysis. Soil cement is the mixture of soil, cement and water that’s typically used as a base for roads. Quality control, VDOT Project Engineer Don Lockard said, is the responsibility of the contractor.”It is not the department’s responsibility to perform the quality control for your items of work,” Lockard wrote in August 1999 to its contractor, the Driggs Corp., about a subcontractor’s work on the Busch-Grove interchange.”It is your job to provide us with a finished product that meets our specifications,” Lockard wrote. “Our inspectors do not have the luxury of time to perform your quality control during each and every individual item of work.”There would seem to be disagreement on that within the department.When Neal, the VDOT construction engineer, was asked earlier this month to outline the responsibilities of VDOT inspectors, he responded, “They perform our quality control.”Neal outranks Lockard in VDOT’s organizational chart. Lockard declined to comment.Even William Boswell, the treasurer of Maryland-based Mark-Lang Inc. – the Busch-Grove subcontractor whose work was at issue – said VDOT historically had taken responsibility for quality control unless it specified that the contractors would do that work themselves.Boswell made that point in a letter to VDOT in 1999 and reiterated his comments in an interview last week. “In other contracts, the quality-control issue was addressed up front,” he said. “In other projects, like the Dulles toll road (in Northern Virginia), it’s spelled out in the bid document.”A bid document details the state’s requirements for the project. Contractors use the document to prepare their estimates of what the project will cost.The bid document might not translate into the actual work done. In the final contract, allowances usually are made for unforeseeable obstacles such as weather delays but not for oversights or errors.LITTLE ENFORCEMENTBut even when VDOT field personnel do document mistakes – or even downright refusal by a contractor to do the job right – the agency often has found itself nearly toothless to enforce contracts.Such is the case with the Busch-Grove interchange.The Driggs Corp. of Capitol Heights, Md., started the job in 1998, agreeing to complete it by December 1999. By mid-1999, project records show, VDOT had concerns about the company’s progress.In September 2000, the project was nine months late and not nearly finished. VDOT’s Hampton Roads personnel began urging Richmond to take steps to declare Driggs in default on the contract. Declaring a contractor in default forces the firm to immediately stop working, threatens the firm with financial sanctions and bans the firm from receiving state contracts in the future.The Richmond office – exhibiting the behavior that Shucet criticized in August – moved slowly.On April 27, 2001, Jane Wimbush – then the Hampton Roads district engineer – wrote an e-mail to Dave Nester, VDOT’s assistant construction engineer in Richmond. “Where do we stand on moving ahead with defaulting Driggs?” Wimbush wrote. “We really need to start this.”Seven months had passed since the Hampton Roads office first requested the default, and in January, the company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. VDOT supervisors said subcontractors stopped work because they were afraid that they wouldn’t be paid.Nester sent an e-mail back to Wimbush, saying t
he agency had sent a notice to Driggs on April 16 that it would be declared in default in 10 days unless it provided the people and equipment necessary to complete the project without further delay.But a meeting with company officials stayed VDOT’s hand, department files show.Also on April 27, 2001, Wimbush sent an e-mail to James C. Cleveland, then the Hampton Roads district administrator, saying, “Construction Division was aware of and a part of the decision to allow work to continue due to the sensitive nature of the project and the governor’s involvement with Busch Gardens.”Then-Gov. James Gilmore wanted to make sure that the interchange would be open in time to accommodate seasonal tourists, VDOT spokeswoman Erika Johnson said last week. “That’s the sensitive nature of the project,” she said.VDOT’s Busch-Grove project file is peppered with comments from top VDOT officials, expressing concerns about the effect that delays would have on tourism.In a project performance review dated July 23, 2001, Driggs scored 37 out of a possible rating of 100. The report said the company often tried to complete only the minimum work possible and “often tries to do a job without the proper equipment.”In August, the state reported, some of Driggs’ equipment was repossessed.In April 2002, on another state performance report, the company scored 28. Inspectors said Driggs had nearly no supervision, delayed work so long that steel assemblies had started to rust and operated without all the required equipment. At times, workers ran out of gas to operate their saws and said they had no way to get more.By November 2002 – with the project now almost three years late – the company’s score had dropped to 12.This report said the company was using unapproved concrete mix, was redoing its work on a regular basis and had improperly installed electrical junction boxes, which were protruding toward the interstate “where safety should be of paramount interest.”The report also noted that Driggs managers frequently traveled the wrong way on one-way roads while working at the site because “it was more convenient.”The work was 98 percent complete -in 235 percent of the originally contracted time.In February of this year, project engineer Lockard sent Driggs a letter, pointing out that in August 2002, the agency had given the contractor a 34-page to-do list that hadn’t been completed.”We are more than three years past the allowable completion date with no end in sight,” Lockard wrote.”VDOT expects you to provide the resources necessary to get this project completed, which you have not been providing to date.”This April, Lockard agreed to let E.V. Williams do some of Driggs’ work to keep the project in compliance with state environmental laws, even before a work order had been approved.Finally – on June 24 – Shucet sent a letter to Driggs, saying the company was in default and removing the company as a potential contractor on future state projects. Other companies have been brought in to finish the interchange.Driggs didn’t return reporters’ phone calls. But in memos to VDOT, the company blamed its troubles on others – including subcontractors and agency officials who it said tended to “design as you go.”TOO FEW INSPECTORS?The GAO report that highlighted highway-design issues in Virginia and other states also addressed the problem that states faced regarding inspections. Part of the inspection problem, the GAO said, is attributable to actions taken by the federal government a decade ago.Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Federal Highway Administration – FHWA – took responsibility for fiscal and physical oversight of most state highway projects receiving $30 billion or more in federal money.Busch-Grove, Mercury, Pembroke and Jefferson all were largely federally financed.But the FHWA started to relinquish that role shortly before the Clinton administration moved to Washington in 1992, the GAO reported. The federal agency did not want to infringe on states’ rights to determine which highways needed money and how to design, develop and build them.About the same time that the FHWA was retrenching, the state began to siphon resources away from VDOT.As part of then-Gov. George Allen’s plan to shrink the government payroll, VDOT offered early retirement to some of its important field people, such as engineers and project inspectors.The state gave up some of its most veteran project watchdogs at a time when it needed extra vigilance.”They lost a lot of talent then,” said one contractor who does millions of dollars of work for the state. “That loss really hurt the agency.”The company official didn’t want to be named because of possible repercussions.Lately, officials at two companies with state contracts say, VDOT officials have told them not to talk to the news media about VDOT business.Just how much the loss of inspectors would hurt became evident later, when problems, costs and delays began to pile up on highway projects across the state.To begin cleaning up that mess, Shucet is searching for 50 additional certified engineers, and he plans to place those professionals mostly out in the field offices.There, they’ll be able to review designs, help choose contractors and make sure the companies are doing the work that they’re supposed to.In other words, to make sure that the roads get built right – the first time.

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