Price of Western Bypass Doubles

VDOT’s internal estimates of the cost of the Western Bypass are double what they told the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Sean Tubbs reports for Charlottesville Tomorrow. A FOIA request by the Charlottesville Albemarle Transportation Coalition, a local anti-bypass group, turned up that VDOT’s own engineers did the math on the project in late June—just a month before the CTB agreed to fund the bypass bypass—and figured out that it would cost $436M, not the $197M that they’d claimed (and that the CTB allocated).

A 121% difference is a hell of a big omission. What’s the difference? Well, Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton directed VDOT’s engineers to figure out how much it would cost, and they found a great many problems with the earlier, lower estimate. First, the price tag was based on a standard of road construction below “interstate” grade, which wouldn’t be sufficient—that added another $24M. Second, the earlier price failed to factor in that the road would have to go clear through Stillhouse Mountain and generally require a lot of earth and rock moving—that’s another $122M. Finally, the estimate for bridges had been low-balled—that was another $26M.

Charlottesville Tomorrow gave VDOT the chance to comment, and the agency’s commissioner tried out a few different responses: a) they don’t intend to build as good of a road as they designed, b) estimates are meaningless—it’s the bids that count, c) projects have been coming in 15–30% (but not 121%, presumably) below estimates d) there’s no telling how good of a road they’ll want until they put this out to bid…next week.

The real mystery here is how VDOT’s final estimate of $436M was presented to the BOS (or, more accurately, the four members of the board who held an unannounced midnight vote to approve the Western Bypass) and to the CTB as merely $197M. If projects have been coming in 15–30% below engineers’ estimates, then presumably the engineers’ estimates have dropped accordingly—presumably that’s something that engineers would have factored in as recently as June. Even then, 30% below VDOT’s estimate is still $152M over budget.

The question that has to be asked is what Sean Connaughton knew and when he knew it. And, of course, whether any members of the BOS had any idea that these numbers were wrong. More likely, they had no idea—the majority on the BOS rushed the whole approval process, based solely on Connaughton’s say-so. This could be a tough lesson for them.