California’s agency responsible for highway projects will fund the remaining aspects of a Highway 49 renovation, despite local transportation officials’ objection that coverage of a $840,000 project overrun should not be compensated with local funds.
“It’s frustrating to say the least,” said Jason Fouyer, a member of the Nevada County Transportation Commission, which voted Feb. 15 to deny the California Department of Transportation’s request for the county’s $420,000 in state-matching funds to complete the project.
That request came one month after the California Department of Transportation blindsided local officials with the nearly $1 million overrun report and mere months before the three-year project’s anticipated completion.
“If any of us at the city or county level, if we were to blow something like this, we would get dragged down the street,” Fouyer said. “The Caltrans folks won’t feel that pain as much as we do.”
The nearly $30 million project to widen Highway 49 to four lanes south of Grass Valley at La Barr Meadows Road also included the construction of soundwalls, frontage roads, right-turn projects, wider shoulders and the installation of a traffic signal at the intersection — a mechanism aimed at decreasing collisions there for the 5,200 people estimated to drive along the highway daily.
When Caltrans’ Deputy District Director Tom Brannon reported in January the need for further funding, he attributed the overages to storm water discharge costs, drainage system modifications, increased traffic handling and crude oil price fluctuations.
Brannon told the county commission in February that his agency should have detected the overages in the spring of 2012 and reported it the county commission.
When the county agency denied Caltrans’ request for further funding, it did so at the anticipated expense that portions of the project would remain unfunded, such as a final asphalt surfacing, embedded lane striping and finalizing some drainage components.
Despite this rejection, the members of the state’s transportation commission, which manages counties’ allocations, voted at their March 5 meeting in San Francisco to override Nevada County’s decision and fund the overrun, thereby completing the project as originally planned.
Half of that funding, $420,000, will be diverted from allocations to Nevada County transportation projects.
“I think everyone needs to be accountable,” Fouyer said. “We are rewarding Caltrans for their lack of accountability. We are paying them for errors they made.”
While those funds will not impact any projects that have already been allocated funding, it will detract from other local projects to which that money might otherwise be directed.
“It’s a bittersweet thing. To have the project finished in good fashion will be good,” said Dan Landon, executive director of the Nevada County Transportation Commission.
Caltrans has reportedly changed its internal reporting process and is committed to communicating with stakeholders on a timely basis in the future, noted District 3 Director Jody Jones at the March 5 meeting in San Francisco, according to Landon.
“Whether changes are made, only time will tell,” Fouyer said.
Jones also reportedly said Caltrans is providing training to staff to prevent this type of situation from occurring again.
“The bottom line is hopefully Caltrans got the message and we won’t have any more surprises,” Landon said. “This is the second time this has happened.”
In the fall 2011, Caltrans reported a more than $3 million last minute request for previously unrealized funding needs for a portion of the Dorsey Drive Interchange project still yet to be constructed on Highway 49 in Grass Valley.
“We have the ability to have Caltrans manage projects or have outside firms do it,” said Fouyer, also a Grass Valley City Council member.
“On Dorsey we had a firm do that because it was less expensive with more accountability … NCTC needs to look seriously at hiring outside firms instead of having Caltrans take the lead on these kinds of things.”
With funds allocated, the Highway 49 project will reportedly wrap up this summer.
A 2011 report by the California State Auditor found that the California Department of Transportation ran through its budget for support costs on at least 476 projects completed since 2007. The overruns alone reportedly cost taxpayers $305 million dollars.
That report, along with another conducted by the Legislative Analyst’s Office in 2010, also criticized Caltrans for inadequate processes of controlling “spiraling spending”; and when Caltrans discovered a project was over budget, it was typically “after it already happened.”
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
“If any of us at the city or county level, if we were to blow something like this, we would get dragged down the street. The Caltrans folks won’t feel that pain as much as we do.”
— Jason Fouyer, Grass Valley city councilman