Virginia’s secretary of transportation said the cost estimate for the Western Bypass of U.S. 29 shown to the Commonwealth Transportation Board in July was based on a more recent design than one assessed by VDOT engineers.
“The bypass that will be developed will not be the interstate-grade type of roadway envisioned 20 years ago,” Sean Connaughton said in an interview Wednesday.
In July, the CTB voted to allocate an additional $197 million to the project in order to finish the purchase of land, to complete engineering and to build the 6.2-mile road and its interchanges. This amount was based on an estimate produced by VDOT’s Culpeper District.
However, VDOT engineers in Richmond’s central office had produced an unofficial estimate that put the total cost of the project around $436 million . These estimates were uncovered by a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition.
VDOT has already spent $46.2 million on the project over the last 20 years.
Connaughton said he had not seen the estimate produced by the central office. He added one reason the Culpeper estimate of $233 million is lower is because it assumes a slightly steeper grade in the section that crosses Stillhouse Mountain. That will require less rock to be excavated.
Next week, VDOT will issue a request for proposals for a contractor both to complete design and build the highway. Connaughton said he believes bids for the project will come in much lower than the Culpeper estimate.
“It's only a six-mile stretch of road over terrain that is not that difficult,” Connaughton said. He said the design-build approach would allow private sector companies to introduce cost savings that VDOT engineers may not be permitted to use due to state regulations.
At least one member of the CTB said he is satisfied with the use of the lower estimate.
“After an RFP is issued, we at the CTB will again have an opportunity for review of the project as bids are submitted by the private sector, said F. Gary Garczynski, an at-large member who represents urban areas. “[They] will have the directive to value engineer and propose cost effective approaches to the road and interchange access points,” he added.
James Rich, who represents the Culpeper District on the CTB, was the lone vote against the bypass in July. He said the topic came up at Wednesday’s CTB meeting in Portsmouth.
“I expressed concern that we hadn’t been given that information beforehand and that the project did not appear to be on sound financial ground or technical grounds,” Rich said.
The CTB took no action on the bypass at the meeting despite the discussion.
Albemarle Supervisor Ann H. Mallek voted against reviving the bypass in late spring and said the released documents confirmed her view that the project is not a good idea.
“We now have corroboration of many of the anticipated difficulties with the current design, the low estimate, and the difficulty presented by the design build contract,” Mallek said. “Design build will get the project underway before there is time to analyze the impacts and fully understand the consequences for our community.”
But Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, a supporter of the project, said he accepted Connaughton’s explanation and looked forward to seeing responses to the RFP.
“I believe it is prudent to wait until we have more specific answers before any construction begins as we unanimously approved in the recent resolution passed by our board,” Boyd said.
Morgan Butler of the Southern Environmental Law Center said the unofficial estimate highlights why his group is opposed to the rush to move the project forward.
“We and so many others in this community have been demanding better information about this project,” Butler said. “The proposal had been sitting on the shelf under more than a decade’s worth of dust before it was suddenly rushed forward this summer with an ‘approve first, answer questions later’ approach.”
The higher unofficial estimate will not stop the RFP from being issued, according to the executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“While it is disappointing that VDOT did not provide full information on the cost uncertainty of the project to the MPO prior to the actions in July, we have received full funding assurance for the project from Commissioner [Gregory] Whirley,” said Stephen Williams.
However, Williams said if the winning bid for the project comes in over the estimate, the MPO would need to update its Transportation Improvement Program to reflect the actual costs.
“It will be the responsibility of the MPO policy board at that time to determine if the project should proceed based on the bid cost,” Williams said.
Supervisor Dennis S. Rooker, an opponent of the road who is a part-owner of land adjacent to the bypass route, took issue with Connaughton’s dismissal of the higher numbers.
“These are the engineers charged with determining the best cost estimates for projects, and not one of them concluded the cost was the number given to the CTB,” Rooker said. “It’s impossible to tell whether the CTB would have approved this project if they got the prices that were developed by VDOT cost engineers.”
Rooker said the use of a lower estimate was a deliberate attempt to move the project forward as quickly as possible with little public scrutiny. He pointed to an email uncovered in a previous FOIA request from CATCO as proof.
“The Secretary wants this project accomplished through ‘design build’ and wants it to go out this summer for $200 million,” wrote VDOT planner Marsha Fiol in an April 6 email to VDOT finance director Reta Busher.