County transportation commissioners scolded state officials Friday morning for a failure to sufficiently communicate an estimated $840,000 overage for the Highway 49 project at La Barr Meadows Road, then denied an appeal for supplemental funds to cover it.
“This exemplifies the worst side of bureaucracy,” Sally Harris, a member of the Nevada County Transportation Commission, said to California Department of Transportation officials responsible for the project.
By a 6-1 vote, commissioners voted against the prospect of transferring $420,000 of matching funds away from future projects to cover the over-budgeted expenses on the nearly $30 million project to widen Highway 49 to four lanes south of Grass Valley at La Barr Meadows Road. The project also included the construction of soundwalls, frontage roads, right-turn projects, wider shoulders and the installation of traffic signal at the intersection — a mechanism aimed at decreasing collisions there for the 5,200 people estimated to drive along highway daily.
Initial warning signs of cost spikes were evident in the spring of 2012, said Tom Brannon, a Caltrans deputy district director. However Caltrans’ focus on summer construction kept project supervisors from realizing the overage in expenses until September or October, Brannon said.
“The mistake we made was not tracking our costs more accurately as we did and not bringing the projections to you sooner,” said Brannon.
“As transportation partners, we let you down by not providing information in a timely fashion,” Brannon said earlier. “I sincerely apologize about that. That is my problem and I own it.”
Nevada County transportation staff was warned in November, Brannon said. But it wasn’t until January that the commissioners themselves were unexpectedly told of the overrun.
“The primary issue here is one of communication,” said Commission chairperson Larry Jostes, “surprises are hard to manage.”
Commissioners repeatedly referenced Caltrans’ more than $3 million last minute request in the fall 2003 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.
“Quite frankly sir, your record on communication is not good,” said Commissioner Nate Beason, a Nevada County Supervisor.
As part of the commissioners’ denial of matching funds, they also stipulated that a “strongly worded” letter be drafted and sent to Caltrans’ top official, the California Transportation Commission, Gov. Jerry Brown and other elected representatives of Nevada County.
“Unless we stick to our guns and say you can’t do that, it will happen again,” said Commissioner Carolyn Wallace Dee, who also serves as Truckee’s mayor. “These kinds of overruns cannot continue. We sent the message before, so we obviously need to sent it more clearly.”
Funding for the project came from a mixture of state and local sources, supplemented by federal stimulus funds. The county’s share was a 50/50 match by the California Transportation Commission’s allocations.
“Any additionally funds needed on the job have to be decided by that same 50/50 split,” Brannon said.
Three primary costs contributed to the overture, Brannon noted.
The first was nearly $323,000 in unanticipated and increased storm water permit costs caused by criteria changes that occurred after the project was bid, according to Dave Catania, the construction engineer overseeing the project.
Another almost $200,000 was attributed to meeting stringent water drainage requirements. Fluctuations in the oil index accounted for about $220,000 of added costs and another $178,000 was attributed to increased traffic handling costs.
Coupled with 42 change-order requests and other expenses, Brannon said costs far surpassed the project’s contingency funds. He also noted that these costs would have occurred no matter when the commission was apprised of them.
“It is almost as if you accept these things as a matter of doing business,” Beason said. “I think there is a certain casual approach to this. These things should be vetted with the utmost scrutiny.”
Alta Sierra resident Carol Mathis asked Caltrans officials Friday morning about the cost of using what seemed to be expensive redwood material in the sound barriers. Catania said the original bid had called for a much more expensive substance. Switching to redwood, he said, actually saved around $400,000.
“What happened to that savings?” Wallace Dee asked, visibly frustrated.
“So in fact, your overruns are closer to $1.5 million,” she added.
Brannon said he did not see it that way.
Forfeited future features
In its decision not to grant matching funds, the commission was aware of three major unimplemented components of the project, which Brannon said would not jeopardize the safety of the already completed and “stabilized” aspects of highway project.
If the commission had chosen to grant the funding, it would have come from future state allocations not already committed to planned projects, said Dan Landon, executive director of the transportation commission,
“I am willing to risk stopping the project,” Harris said. “It comes from willingness to stand and say this is unacceptable.”
Perhaps the most significant of the three aspects yet to be completed is the planned addition of open-grade asphalt to the existing road surface, which is on the highway sections before and after the project segment. Open-grade is a thin, porous layer of asphalt that keeps water from pooling in the roadway and strengthens the road. Without the open-grade asphalt, the updated highway will not last as long and will be subject to more maintenance costs, Brannon said.
Other yet-to-be completed aspects of the Highway 49 widening include inlaid thermo-plastic road striping, which is more durable than traditionally painted road stripes, and the completion of certain drainage elements, such as updating culverts.
Commissioners inquired who would ultimately be responsible for the added costs of maintenance for upkeep of the unfinished road, to which Brannon replied it was Caltrans’ responsibility.
However he noted that open-grade asphalt would increase the road’s safety by diverting water from the roadway.
“We hope to build a lot more of these installments all the way down Highway 49,” Brannon said. “We would like this job to be the one that sets the tone for the rest of those segments.”
Further down the road
Wallace Dee suggested that Caltrans could perhaps fund its half of the requested amount and prioritize the work as it deems necessary.
Both Brannon and Landon agreed that the California Transportation Commission is unlikely to award such funding.
Commissioner Ed Scofield suggested that the remaining elements could be included as part of future projects on Highway 49.
“In my opinion, we have the contractor and the scope we all agreed should be done,” Brannon said.
With the prospects of additional funds grim, Brannon said he was unsure of when workers would leave the project.
“This does not mean we walk off,” he told The Union. “We are going to continue to do what we are doing to make sure the job is secured.”
Every commissioner noted their trust in Caltrans was strained at what appears to be a systemic problem. Brannon told The Union Thursday that he was unaware of any personnel decisions to made stemming from the budget overrun.
“In the future, we will be watching costs far more carefully than we have in the past,” Brannon told the commissioners. “Reported at least quarterly and if an overrun is anticipated, we will bring it to you sooner.”
Multiple calls to representatives of DeSilva Gates Construction, the primary contractor on the project, were not returned Friday.
To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, e-mail email@example.com or call 530-477-4236
For a story leading into today’s decision, click HERE.
— An earlier version of this story contained the wrong date of the 2011 in reference to Dorsey Interchange funding. The Union regrets the error.
“Unless we stick to our guns and say you can’t do that, it will happen again.”
— Carolyn Wallace Dee, Nevada County Transportation Commission member