“Overdue and over budget” is more than a phrase in Massachusetts. It’s become a way of life for many of the state’s road and bridge projects.
Nearly half of all road and bridge projects in the state are over budget, and more than one-third are not completed on time, an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
The delays result in contract extensions that put thousands of extra work days on the state’s construction calendar and millions of dollars in contractors’ pockets¸ the center reports.
155,008 Extra Work Days
In the last four fiscal years alone, contractors had 155,008 extra work days added to their construction schedules — equivalent to nearly 425 years — and billed the state more than $352 million in cost overruns on hundreds of road and bridge projects throughout Massachusetts, the investigation found.
|Boston’s “Big Dig” project, budgeted at $14 billion, ran $12 billion over budget and was years behind schedule.|
Projects still underway will add $127 million and nearly 43,000 days to those figures.
The analysis is based on data obtained from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. The center also offers an interactive breakdown of projects.
Topping the list of budget-busting projects is the Fore River Bridge linking Quincy and Weymouth—a project originally priced at $58 million that grew to $87.9 million. A second phase, including construction of a new bridge, will cost an additional $299 million.
No. 2 on the list is a project to relocate Route 44 in Plymouth. Budgeted at $34 million, it ended up costing an additional $23 million and ran nearly 2,200 days past the original deadline.
Among other examples:
• An $8.8 million repaving project along a stretch of I-93 came in at $10.5 million and two years’ overdue; and
• A Park & Ride facility in Andover cost an extra $207,000.
‘You Can’t Open a Vault’
Cost overruns and delays on public works projects have long been a concern for fiscal watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight, the center reports.
“You can’t open a vault filled with money. That just doesn’t work,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for group, based in Washington, D.C. “The government needs to do everything it can to protect itself and the taxpayers so that contracts don’t end up over budget and behind schedule.”
“Lessons of extensive time delays and construction shortfalls learned from the Central Artery Tunnel Project, better known as ‘The Big Dig,’ seem lost in the four years since 2007, when that $14 billion project faced $12 billion in cost overruns and was years behind schedule,” the center reports
“Today, Massachusetts continues to struggle to bring construction projects in on deadline and on budget.”
Extension, Extension, Extension
In 2010, taxpayers shelled out more than $8 million to cover construction costs that added about 4,000 calendar days—more than 10 years—to road and bridge projects in the Bay State.
“From drain cleaning and sign installation to a ‘weave elimination project’ on the Massachusetts Turnpike, cost overruns and missed deadlines have taken a collective bite from at least half of the 1,212 road and bridge contracts signed by MassDOT since 2008,” the center said.
One of the state’s longest-running projects was a 10-year-old venture to install an intelligent transportation management system that controls and monitors traffic along a 25-mile stretch of Route 128. Started in July 1998 and scheduled for completion in April 2004, the project overseen by Liddell Brothers lasted an additional five years and topped out at $9.6 million—$3.1 million more than its original contract price and nine years beyond its scheduled completion date, MassDOT records note.
The Halifax-based contractor on that project signed a total of 23 contracts with the state since 1998, topping its budget 10 times and adding $2 million in overruns and more than 4,500 extra work days to the final cost.
The most costly project, however, involved a series of structural repair projects by N E L Corp. that started in 2004. Originally budgeted at $1.5 million, cost overruns put the final pricetage at $8.9 million after just four years, MassDOT data indicates.
N E L Corp. has signed 56 contracts with MassDOT, 19 of them with cost overruns totaling about $40 million and eight in which completion deadlines were extended by more than 7,000 days.
Representatives from the construction companies either declined comment or did not return phone calls to the center’s reporters.
But John Pourbaix, executive director of Construction Industries of Massachusetts, a trade organization that represents many contractors who do business with the state, said several factors affect the bottom line in almost all construction projects. Weather and environmental concerns, design flaws and utility relocation issues all mean delays, he notes. And as delays mount, so do costs.
“Believe me, a contractor would love to get in and get out as quickly as possible,” Pourbaix said. “It’s extremely expensive in terms of overhead in equipment and bidding opportunities” to deal with delays.
MassDOT officials said changes to work orders along with scheduling, site and other issues likely contributed to increased cost and later completion dates on those projects and others, as well. In fact, extra work orders and design changes or omissions cause 86 percent of all internal delays, a MassDOT study shows.
‘Our Projects Aren’t Given Priority’
Schedule extensions also were due to external factors, including changed surface conditions, inclement weather and delays by utility companies in relocating equipment. Those factors contribute to 69 percent of all delays caused by external conditions in 2010, that same study notes.
Michael McGrath, deputy chief engineer for construction with MassDOT, said utility company relocation delays are also a factor, accounting for 28 percent of the delays in 2010.
“Because we’re not a revenue source for them, our projects aren’t given priority,” he said.
Amy Zorich, spokeswoman for National Grid, said the number of utilities and other construction demands associated with complex relocation work can extend deadlines.
“We do our best to work cooperatively with the state to make sure projects go smoothly, but there are a lot of things that go into projects that affect the timing,” said Zorich.
‘Mileage Fees’ Eyed
Whatever the cause or causes, Massachusetts transportation officials are working to turn the numbers around.
“Our goal is to have 80 percent of our highway projects completed on time in fiscal 2011,” says Thomas Broderick, acting chief engineer for the state’s Highway Division. “We want to make sure we’re showing constant improvement.”
To that end, the state legislature could soon begin studying a plan to impose mileage-based fees on drivers to generate that needed revenue.
Some say that’s not enough; they want to hold contractors more accountable. “When the taxpayers’ money is at stake, there’s no disincentive—no financial or business consequences,” said Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Schatz said MassDOT can curb costs by offering incentives for a job well done and penalties for contractors who breech deadlines or overspend budgets.
MassDOT spokesman Adam Hurtubise said the state recently began using incentive clauses in some contracts, including one dubbed “Fast 14,” a program designed to replace 14 bridge decks on I-93 in Medford during the summer.
Under that program, part of the state’s Accelerated Bridge Replacement effort, contractors can earn up to $7 million in incentives if they adhere to a contract provision requiring bridges closed for weekend repairs be reopened to traffic by 5 a.m. each Monday. Contractors who miss the deadline can face penalties of $450,000 and up.
So far, the roadway has opened ahead of schedule each weekend, Hurtubise said.