Highway To Hell

Posted April 17, 2008 in News

At the risk of alienating most of our readers, we at the IE Weekly would like to speak out in defense of the California Department of Transportation.    

Caltrans is the Rodney Dangerfield of state agencies. It gets no respect. Take, for example, the department’s $368 million-plus debacle known at the 60/91/215 Interchange Project. The popular sentiment is that the project has come to represent all the wastefulness, stupidity and lack of foresight for which the department is famous. 

But that just isn’t fair. A lot of careful planning, creativity and attention to detail by some of the smartest bureaucrats in California went into making the interchange into the disaster it’s become today. The big brains at Caltrans didn’t just casually screw up this public-works endeavor. They put their shoulders into it big time. 

How else can you explain how a relatively straightforward plan to improve traffic flow on the notoriously congested junction could have ballooned into the most expensive highway project in IE history, involving eight new bridges, two new freeway-to-freeway flyovers, 80 new retaining walls, and two new traffic lanes? Or why Caltrans would use such an insanely complex undertaking as a guinea pig for its new theories on awarding contracts. Or why Caltrans would refuse to pay its own contractor for hundreds of design changes and then act astonished when the contractor stopped work for nearly three weeks out of protest. Or how even a state agency as cross-eyed as the California Department of Transportation could look at a project thus far more than $51 million over budget and six months behind schedule and still pronounce it a success.

“If we had used traditional methods of completing this work, we could have taken nearly 10 years to complete it,” says Caltrans spokeswoman Rose Melgoza. “Instead, we’ve been able to do this project in 3 1/2 years, with relatively less cost if you compare future construction dollars. We consider it a success. A celebration is scheduled for (Friday).”

Melgoza is quite correct in that the mess that is the interchange project could have been a lot worse. Had the agency used the traditional method of awarding contracts—going to bid with a fixed set of designs, and assigning the job to the lowest bidder—the project might easily have been broken into five separate projects and taken 10 years to complete. Funding could have fallen through over that time, and the cost of materials would certainly have risen to levels no one could predict. 

Instead, Caltrans used a new process known as design sequencing, in which the project was broken into sequential pieces, the contract for each awarded only after at least 33% of work on the previous piece was completed. The process allowed—or was supposed to allow—Caltrans to keep the design of the project fluid until the last possible moment in case changes needed to be made. The process was also supposed to reduce cost inflation by chaining contractors to the cost of materials at the time the contract was awarded—anything above the original estimate would be the responsibility of the contractor. Material costs did skyrocket after the interchange project began in earnest in 2004, and taxpayers can thank design sequencing for not being on the hook for it. 

But the problem with design sequencing is that it’s a new concept. Caltrans can count on two fingers the number of large-scale freeway projects for which the concept was used: the interchange project in Riverside and the I-15 widening project from Victorville to Barstow. No one really knew how design sequencing would work when applied to a task as vast as the 60/91/215 gig. As such, no one—not the taxpayers, and especially not the contractor chosen for the job, the Washington-based joint venture Washington Group-Obayashi Corp.—could have anticipated what Caltrans did once the project began. And what it did was go absolutely nuts with design changes.

Since work began in March 2004, Caltrans has slammed Washington-Obayashi with 550 separate change orders—most occurring in the first year of construction. The result was endless delays, material waste and lots of frustration from workers who would spend days building and digging—only to have to tear down whatever they just built and refill whatever hole they dug. In March 2005, after being told by the agency to go fish for the cost of all those false starts and stops, Washington-Obayashi declared enough was enough and stopped work for nearly three weeks until the matter could be resolved in front of a dispute review board. 

“We couldn’t come to agreement on the amount of change orders and what the cost would be to Washington-Obayashi, because we have always had to keep the costs of this project fair and reasonable,” says Melgoza. “Washington claimed they were losing money, and we wanted to see proof.”

Caltrans apparently saw all the proof it needed when the dispute board found in favor of Washington-Obayashi and told the agency to knock it off with the change orders. The agency agreed to pay an additional $3.7 million to the contractor to get the cement mixers rolling again. So much for cost savings. 

Washington-Obayashi officials did not return calls for comment. 

Asked whether Caltrans would do things differently if it could start the interchange project over again, Melgoza was remarkably candid.

“(The interchange) project is a pilot project, and the purpose of experimental projects is to learn from what works well—not every project is really well-suited for design sequencing,” Melgoza says. “Had we to do it over again, we wouldn’t have chosen such a complex project for design sequencing. Other types of similar projects might have been better suited.”

Another thing Caltrans would probably do differently with the interchange project is build it right on top of 3450 Fourteenth St. in downtown Riverside, otherwise known as the headquarters of the Riverside Press-Enterprise. We’ve said it before and bears repeating: For all its many faults, the P.E. has reporters who, when allowed to do their jobs, often do them very well. Two of those reporters are Ben Goad and Julia Glick, who from the start of the interchange mess crawled right up Caltrans’ ass and handed out business cards. The result was a body of work documenting the agency’s every misstep on the project . . . as well as an agency spokeswoman so bedeviled that she seemed reluctant to talk to the Weekly until we convinced her we weren’t the P.E.  

 “We’ve been very frank and upfront with [the P.E.], but we’ve had to write a couple of rebuttals because they chose to write—late to the project—about increasing costs as it were our carelessness,” Melgoza says, adding that some of the P.E.’s story’s contained factual inaccuracies.

When asked to describe some of those inaccuracies, Melgoza says: “They said that the lane reductions at the 60-215 interchanges are simply just for worker safety, but they make it sound as if that’s a trivial matter, and that we won’t give those lanes back.”

Not exactly. Glick wrote in March that Caltrans created a traffic nightmare when it shut down two lanes of a three-lane portion of the 60 in preparation of a bridge project, and then abandoned the project when workers ran into construction problems. The lanes are still closed, Glick wrote, but Caltrans promises it will open them again later—possibly this month. 

All of which is correct, as is Goad and Glick’s other reporting on the Washington-Obayashi debacle, the rising costs, the delays, the blown deadlines—none of which Caltrans disputed. When the agency asserted that 121 days of delays were the result of bad weather, Goad checked meteorological reports and reported that four of the delays occurred when the weather was just fine. That’s community journalism.  

It must be said that, when they gather for the party they’re throwing for themselves Friday, Caltrans officials should get some pats on the back for taking seriously the monstrous gridlock problem at the 60/91/215 junction. Mismanagement aside, the interchange project is at least close to becoming a reality, and should—if cost and scope is any indication—assuage congestion both now and when the Inland Empire’s population hits an estimated 4.5 million people in the next two years. But it also must be said that patting a Caltrans official on the back would be a lot easier to do if it weren’t for all that waste.

“Trying out a new technique for bidding would probably have been a better idea on a smaller project, or certainly one less significant,” says Tom Schatz, president 

of the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens Against Government Waste. The nonprofit monitors government abuse of taxpayer dollars, and annually releases a pink “Piglet” book describing major examples of government waste.

“It also seems absurd that it would take this long for a project that, on its face, appears to be routine,” he continues. “One would hope that other projects around the state are not following this example. We’ll certainly consider the interchange project when we put together our next Piglet book.”




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