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Anatomy of a $3 million overrun

May 20, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Between 12,000 and 16,000 cars a day pass through the intersection of Maugans Avenue and U.S. 11, many on their way to or from a nearby Interstate 81 exit. Washington County officials have talked about an upgrade to the road for the past five years, in part because between 1999 and 2004, there were 85 accidents there.

But after all the design work was done and the bids came back, the lowest of the two submitted was nearly $3 million more than the county's estimate.

Why did it happen and what can be done to prevent such a thing from happening again?

To get some answers, I talked to Gary Rohrer, the county's director of special projects, who was head of Public Works when the project was being designed.

Rohrer said that to get a better handle on the county's road overlay program, his department had "every mile of every road photographed and catalogued," so they could see the condition of the pavement.

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As a result, he said, "Roads like Maugans Avenue became candidates for reconstruction."

It's a big project. Maugans Avenue will go from two lines to five lanes between U.S. 11 and I-81 and turn lanes will be added at the intersection of Maugans and Pennsylvania avenues. Finally, traffic signals will be added at both ramps of I-81.

Rohrer said a number of factors played into the inaccurate estimate.

"We had hoped to do it two years ago and then we got into delays with the utilities. You have to move at their speed. You can't just go out and cut the poles down," he said.

Then the price of asphalt went up, as did the cost of cement. But what wasn't considered adequately, Rohrer said, was the need to keep traffic moving through the intersection during construction.

"It's a primary corridor," Rohrer said.

As a result, C. William Hetzer Inc., the contractor, must work around certain time restrictions that Rohrer said bar work between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., the noon hour and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

That's five hours of the workday during which nothing can done, but Rohrer said it is necessary for the safety of both construction workers and motorists.

But as a practical matter, Rohrer said it means that if, for example, the contractor is laying pipe that will cross the road, it will have to be done in stages instead of all at the same time.

This is the type of project that hasn't been done previously in Washington County, Rohrer said, adding that its unfamiliar nature contributed to the bad estimate.

"Hopefully it will be a learning experience that will not go unheeded," he said.

Asked if county officials had considered rebidding the project, Rohrer said he had discussed it with Joe Kroboth, the new head of the Public Works Department.

"Joe and I discussed it, and the thought was, 'Why do we want to go through all that at a critical time of the year?' " Rohrer said.

Because the contractors capable of doing such a job are busy with other projects, Rohrer said the likely result would have been bids that were no lower. And much of this year's construction season would be wasted, he said.

"There wasn't anything to be gained and a lot to be lost," he said.

Asked whether traffic coming from I-81 could have been detoured north to the Showalter Road exit, Rohrer said that he expected that during the project, many people would find alternate routes.

But closing the stretch completely during the construction would make it difficult for the residents and businesses in that area, including those who use the rear entrance to Volvo Powertrain (Mack Trucks.)

"And you have a lot of traffic along the Longmeadow Road corridor, a lot of residences," he said.

Asked whether any procedures will change as a result of the problems with the estimate, Rohrer said that since he's now changed jobs, that is up to Kroboth.

Kroboth said that to prevent such problems in the future, his department will do additional reviews. In addition to looking at an estimation guide from Maryland's State Highway Administration and one that's commercially produced, Kroboth said the department will consult with other local governments such as Antrim Township, Pa., and the City of Hagerstown.

"We're trying to put more research into our bid reviews," he said.

Kroboth noted that some projects do come in under estimates. Construction of a new cell at the 40 West Landfill was estimated to cost $4.2 million, but the bid came in at $3 million, he said.

During his time as Public Works Director, Rohrer worked on some of the county's biggest projects and led negotiations with the vendor for the county's new emergency communications system. In the process, he was able to shave several million dollars off the cost.

He didn't get much positive publicity for that, but to his credit, he didn't complain, nor did he attempt to make light of the Maugans Avenue problem. For his candor, citizens should be grateful.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers

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