With Phases II and III at the Springfield interchange ahead of schedule, everything was beginning to look up, until recently when interim Transportation Commissioner Ray D. Pethtel announced the latest price estimate going from a current $585 million to $650 and possibly $700 before completion.
According to information released by the Virginia Department of Transportation, Pethel said "the last estimate of this project was $589.5 million. That estimate was made last November. Until construction actually begins on the final phases we will not have a confirmed figure. However, it is time to be realistic about the cost of this entire project, from beginning to end, so that the public knows the full costs involved." The cost estimate was reviewed as part of VDOT's recent effort, ordered by Governor Mark R. Warner, to build a realistic Six-Year Plan.
THE THREE CULPRITS in the price increase were indicated by VDOT as changes in contract conditions involving utility reconstruction, contract claims from phases II and III which are still subject to negotiation and possible litigation, and delays in rebuilding the Beltway over one of the most heavily traveled rail corridors in the nation.
At least 60 trains a day use the tracks limiting blocks of time for construction work. This causes costly delays, which VDOT is working to resolve. According to VDOT public affairs specialist Joan Morris, the time working in the area around the metro tracks has gone from 5.5 hours, which is in the contract, to three hours.
"We were hoping to work from 12-5:30 a.m. but it's really 1-4 a.m. Metro wants us off the track one hour before their first train that leaves the station," she said.
VDOT engineer Larry Cloyed noted that in the early phases of the project, Metro's operating hours were slightly different and allowed for more work time on the bridge.
"When the initial agreement was written, those hours [Metro's start and stop time] were shorter. If he [Shirley Contracting] would have known that, he would have bid it right in the contract," Cloyed said. The bridge was scheduled to be completed in August 2003 but is now tentatively scheduled for August 2004.
Another factor was a sewer line in the heart of the I-395/I-495 interchange. It is 40 feet beneath the surface. The sewer involves Phases IV and V which resulted in a conflict between Shirley Contracting, who has Phase IV and Lane Contracting, which was awarded Phase V. Although the sewer is part of Shirley's project, it is in a location that affects Lane's progress so VDOT had to redirect Shirley's efforts temporarily and supply some retaining equipment. That problem is now out of the way but not before it stalled work and accounted for lost time.
"What we thought was a 6-week job turned out to be four months. The day for day loss to Lane was the real cost," Cloyed said.
Amtrak, the Virginia Railway Express and CSX railroad pass under the same bridge. CSX is on a 24-hour schedule, which requires a flagman that is in contact with the trains and workers at all times.
"CSX runs its freight 24 hours so there has to be a flagman that is in contact with the trains. It's one of those things that's compounding, it is a real time loser for them [bridgework]" Cloyed said.
VDOT WILL HAVE a full review of all the factors that lead to potential cost increases for the project when the tentative Six-Year Plan is released in May.
Steve Titunik, VDOT's information specialist at the Interchange Information Office in Springfield Mall, looks at problems that arise with projects of this size that were not in the plan.
"When you do big projects like this, any small thing that needs to be corrected could turn out to be a huge cost," he said.
In part of Phase II and III, a large electrical junction box that was not on any drawings was discovered underground where they were digging. This was an example of the unexpected that delayed construction.
"Shirley was digging and that came upon a big junction box that was not part of the county's plans. If you cut through that, somebody in Springfield is going to lose power," he said.
In that incident, electricians had to be brought in and an architectural firm had to redesign things to go around that box.
"Those things happen," he said.
The "unknowns" concerned Cloyed as well.
"When you're involved with construction projects, there are so many unknowns. You just can't plan for all those factors," he said.
Cloyed said that VDOT is working with the schedules, trying to figure out the best situation.
"We're going to continue to work on what ever 'work-arounds' and seriously look at everywhere we can cut back," he said.
SPRINGFIELD RESIDENT Melissa Saisagul isn't surprised about the increases.
"They come with the territory. I think it's less confusing, when you're merging it's a lot safer," she said.
Dave Vilaysomvong goes through the area every day from his home in Alexandria.
"It looks like it's going to work out, I think that's [price increase] is to be expected," he said.
Vilaysomvong has heard people talking about it from out-of-town.
"I know people from Minnesota, they say 'I heard about the mixing bowl,'" he said.
To other residents in the area that see the new houses going up and traffic increasing everyday, the interchange is already outdated.
"I'm afraid by the time it's done, we'll need another one," said Larry Kemple whose work takes him through the area on a daily basis.
Springfield resident Gary Seale had a similar outlook.
"I think they're still going to have transportation problems after that," he said.
Mary Seale watches the project evolve.
"It seems like it's never going to end," she said.
Alex Ortiz moved to Springfield from Woodbridge.
"It's an expensive undertaking that's for sure, but I think it needs to be done," he said.
Phase VIII that would have connected the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to the beltway was cut from the project last year. According to Morris, it will be included with the Capital Beltway project that widens I-495. No date has been set for that project.
"That will be with the Capital Beltway project," she said.