August 17, 1995 in Nation/World

Highway Projects Paved In Red Ink Poorly Written Contracts, Unforeseen Soil Erosion Bedevil Sandpoint-Area Improvements

By The Spokesman-Review
 

State highway officials have dumped piles of cash into two problem-ridden road projects here, pushing them nearly $4 million over budget.

Most of the cost overruns stem from poor planning and badly written contracts by the Idaho Department of Transportation.

Little or no erosion control was required on either the U.S. Highway 95 job north of Sandpoint, or the U.S. Highway 2 project west of the city.

Highway officials also drastically underestimated the need for traffic control to get travelers through the work sites.

As a result, the state spent nearly $2 million extra to fix environmental problems, build a detour route and hire additional flaggers.

“Four million dollars sure sounds like a major concern to me,” said Transportation Board member Leon Smith. “There have already been reams of things concerning this project and I’m sure the board will look at this very closely.”

The Transportation Board has not yet seen a breakdown of the cost overruns, but plans to review them at next week’s meeting in Pocatello.

A 10 percent overrun on major projects is not out of the ordinary, but both highway jobs are nearly 20 percent over budget.

“I have to think there is some bad planning here somewhere,” said John McHugh, the District I transportation board representative. “It doesn’t sound to me like business as usual. We will have to go over exactly what happened.”

The Division of Environmental Quality tried to warn transportation officials about erosion problems before construction began on an eightmile stretch of Highway 95. The agency said they were ignored and the Transportation Department even sidestepped a formal review of construction plans.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers revoked one of the state’s work permits on Highway 95 after four acres of wetlands were destroyed.

Now, the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Coalition, a water quality watchdog group, is suing the state for polluting Sand Creek with tons of dirt. Highway officials allowed sandy soil to be used to build up road banks. Rock had to be placed over the dirt after rain washed portions of the banks away.

“They knew the soil they were using was highly erodible, and I think more precautions should have been taken. It would have saved everyone a lot of problems,” said Transportation Board Chairman Charles Winder. “It appears our foresight on these projects was not as good as it could have been.”

District Engineer Tom Baker has been under fire for nearly a year because of the two jobs. He admits some of the extra expenses were predictable and should have been included in the original plans and contracts. But he still maintains most of the problems were not foreseeable.

“The traffic and erosion control were just underestimated. They are variables that are hard to predict,” he said. “Even if we had included the items we know about now, it still would have cost more to bid the project.”

Coalition leader, Diane Williams, disagrees. Preventing the environmental problems on Highway 95 would have cost about $500,000, not the nearly $1 million now spent, she said.

“It wouldn’t have cost nearly as much to do the erosion control work up front. Now they have spent all this money, the damage is already done and it’s still not fixed,” she said.

Instead of using the Division of Environmental Quality’s expertise before work began, the transportation department hired outside consultants and engineers to help fix erosion problems.

The state’s traffic control plan on the seven-mile section of Highway 2 fell apart right after construction began. The promised 15-minute delays turned into two hour waits on the major truck route.

A frustrated lumber mill operator and Laclede store owner filed claims against the state for stopping the flow of commerce and not providing an alternative route.

Highway officials later built a detour around the project where rock cliffs were being blasted away. They also paid for more flaggers and a pilot car to move travelers through the single lane of traffic. The extra flaggers alone cost $536,928.

The projects are due to be completed next year, but Baker estimates the cost overruns won’t grow beyond $4 million.

“It’s always a big concern when we go over on a project,” Winder said. “There will be some definite looks at the planning, budgeting and estimating of these jobs.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo; Map of area

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: U.S. HIGHWAY 2 COST OVERRUNS TOTAL $1.7 MILLION Work on U.S. Highway 2 is $1.7 million over budget. The original contract was for $7.3 million and, to date, $9 million has been authorized. Major overruns include: Flagging - $536,928. The traffic control plan designed by the transportation department was inadequate. Pilot car - $66,450. A pilot car was not required and had to be added. Erosion control - $321,403. There was little or no erosion control required in the contract. Environmental officials later ordered an erosion control plan to protect wetlands and the Pend Oreille River. Highway officials also paid $25,000 to consultants for erosion control plans. Traffic detour - $44,500. A detour to move traffic around rock excavation was not in the original plan. Concrete guardrails - $192,000. Barriers were required to keep rocks from falling on the road. The Idaho Transportation Department estimated it needed only 110 sections of concrete barriers; it actually needed 400. Construction on U.S. Highway 95 is $2.1 million over budget. The original contract of $6.7 million has ballooned to include costs of $8.8 million. Major overruns include: Re-channel stream and stabilize slopes - $389,498. Engineering plans did not identify ground water and springs in the area or anticipate erosion from steep slopes that had to be armored with rock. Erosion control - $431,480. Little or no erosion control was specified in the contract. It was later required by environmental officials who also revoked a work permit for the tranportation department because of wetland violations. Flagging and traffic control - $597,707. The need for traffic control was underestimated. Crews were also called back to control traffic while erosion problems were fixed. Consulting services - $192,000. An engineer was hired when part of the new road bed began sinking, up to 12 feet, into a bog. A consultant was also hired to prepare erosion control plans. Kevin Keating

Cut in the Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: U.S. HIGHWAY 2 COST OVERRUNS TOTAL $1.7 MILLION Work on U.S. Highway 2 is $1.7 million over budget. The original contract was for $7.3 million and, to date, $9 million has been authorized. Major overruns include: Flagging - $536,928. The traffic control plan designed by the transportation department was inadequate. Pilot car - $66,450. A pilot car was not required and had to be added. Erosion control - $321,403. There was little or no erosion control required in the contract. Environmental officials later ordered an erosion control plan to protect wetlands and the Pend Oreille River. Highway officials also paid $25,000 to consultants for erosion control plans. Traffic detour - $44,500. A detour to move traffic around rock excavation was not in the original plan. Concrete guardrails - $192,000. Barriers were required to keep rocks from falling on the road. The Idaho Transportation Department estimated it needed only 110 sections of concrete barriers; it actually needed 400. Construction on U.S. Highway 95 is $2.1 million over budget. The original contract of $6.7 million has ballooned to include costs of $8.8 million. Major overruns include: Re-channel stream and stabilize slopes - $389,498. Engineering plans did not identify ground water and springs in the area or anticipate erosion from steep slopes that had to be armored with rock. Erosion control - $431,480. Little or no erosion control was specified in the contract. It was later required by environmental officials who also revoked a work permit for the tranportation department because of wetland violations. Flagging and traffic control - $597,707. The need for traffic control was underestimated. Crews were also called back to control traffic while erosion problems were fixed. Consulting services - $192,000. An engineer was hired when part of the new road bed began sinking, up to 12 feet, into a bog. A consultant was also hired to prepare erosion control plans. Kevin Keating


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