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Guess Who They Hired to Build the New Metro?

Extending Metro to Dulles Airport is like adding a room to your house: The price and timetable you get going into the project bear only a tangential relationship to reality. Along the way, you'll have to give up on those gold-standard materials. No matter how hard and fast the deal you thought you had with the contractor, somehow you'll end up with a different price -- and different means higher.

But when you pick your contractor, you will certainly shy away from the guy you know was involved in massive cost overruns on your friend's basement. That's where Virginia and you part ways: To design Metro's extension from Falls Church to the airport, the state hired a consortium headed by Bechtel Corp., the company that managed perhaps the biggest construction fiasco in American history, Boston's Big Dig.

The cost of the Big Dig -- a two-mile underground highway, bridge and tunnel through a dense, historic chunk of downtown Boston -- skyrocketed from $4 billion to $14 billion over two decades. The Massachusetts inspector general concluded that Bechtel, one of the world's largest engineering firms and the builder of everything from the Hoover Dam to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility, "failed to inform the state legislature of the true cost of the Big Dig." And a Boston Globe investigation found that Bechtel failed to detect major flaws in construction, signed off on error-filled designs and was responsible for more than $1 billion in cost overruns.

Even after the seemingly endless project was completed last year, Bechtel's troubles mounted. The tunnels sprang leaks and a concrete ceiling panel fell, crushing a woman on her way to the airport.

Bechtel executives dispute the state and newspaper reports and defend the quality of their work, but the question stands: Why would Virginia turn to this company to handle Dulles rail, and what guarantees are there for taxpayers and drivers on the Dulles Toll Road -- the two groups who will pay the biggest chunk of the bill -- that costs won't soar as they did in Boston?

"It's our money, but how much leverage do we have moving forward?" asks Fairfax County Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence), one of only two "no" votes in last week's approval of an elevated route through Tysons Corner (she preferred to tunnel under the highly congested area). "There are contingencies and penalties, and it's a pretty tight contract, but it's not that different from the one they had for the Big Dig."

Yes, it is, says Sam Carnaggio, the state's project director for the Metro extension. "Believe me, I'm concerned about any contractor that was involved in something like that," he says. "Bechtel was certainly part of a project that went out of control. But there's a lot of blame there that belongs with the state."

The real test, Smyth says, is how closely the government will supervise Bechtel's work. Carnaggio agrees and says Virginia will examine every invoice Bechtel submits and conduct inspections to make sure the reported work is really done.

Smyth doesn't believe Bechtel should have been disqualified because of the Boston mess -- after all, the company handled contracts on the $700 million Springfield Mixing Bowl, which is on schedule -- but she's concerned that Virginia didn't look closely enough at what went wrong in Massachusetts.

And she worries that history is repeating itself as state officials and their chosen contractors produce artificially low estimates to impress federal transit authorities.

Carnaggio says it's true that Virginia pushed Bechtel to lower its estimates. He says that the process is not intended to hide the true costs but rather to eliminate amenities that the state can't afford. So while the original plan was to build the rail line 85 feet below ground between the Tysons I and Tysons II shopping malls, then on down Route 7, that tunnel now will be only 40 feet below the surface and will be three-eighths of a mile rather than seven-eights of a mile, and the rest will be elevated. "We narrowed pedestrian bridges and took out some stairs and got the costs down," he says.

Carnaggio concedes that the price of rail to Dulles, now estimated at $5.1 billon, has jumped several times and could go higher. "The price is as fixed as any construction project can be," he says. "Some choices won't be made until 2010; for example, we don't want to fix prices for the stations before then because costs for materials could change, up or down."

That's the nature of construction, he says. "Things can happen. We just have to watch closely."

Especially when the contractor is somebody who is fresh from a project that went historically out of control.

By Marc Fisher |  June 24, 2007; 9:25 AM ET
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Comments

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The problem with sticking to the budget is that few believe that (a) the estimate for a tunnel was correct and (2) that changes would have cost federal funds. The Feds said it would be OK to have a later plan. But that is a good talking point. This will be remembered as a major mistake an even now it is not too late to fix.

Posted by: Gary Masters | June 24, 2007 11:03 AM

I would like to see an independent firm audit the contract file that was awarded to Bechtel. How many bids were received? How many made it into the competitive range? Was negotiations held with all offerors in the competitive range, or just with Bechtel? Of course the contract will not be properly monitored. If Bechtel is pushed too much, they will back out of the contract, pay any reprocurement costs, and go on their merry way.

Posted by: Doubting | June 24, 2007 12:26 PM

I live in the area and have yet to see a map of the proposed route or locations of the stations.

--- Faye Kane, homeless smartmouth --- see more of my smartmouth opinions at blog.myspace.com/fayekane

Posted by: FayeKane | June 24, 2007 12:40 PM

You know, this isn't exactly "news" to anyone who has been following this issue...

Posted by: cb | June 24, 2007 1:10 PM

Bechtel is loaded with Republican thieves.

Posted by: Ngineer | June 24, 2007 8:44 PM

They steal Republicans?

Posted by: @ Ngineer | June 24, 2007 9:32 PM

There are not that many firms that can handle massive civil engineering projects, to the comparison to a home remodeling company is idiotic.

Posted by: joe | June 25, 2007 10:01 AM

Bechtel didn't "build" the Big Dig, they were the management contractor. Carter & Burgess has that role on Dulles Rail, so its not a good comparison.

Bechtel told Massachusetts many times that the cost estimates for the Big Dig were too low and no one wanted to listen. In fact, the Mass Secretary of Transportation actually got into trouble for not telling the public what Bechtel was telling him.

One reason the price on Dulles keeps getting higher is all the delay in getting started. The project has been delayed three years because Metro and Fairfax keep trying to renegotiate the deal they cut with the state to run the project in 2000. The state didn't have enough gumption to keep them in line, so they had to lay the project off to the airport, who, so far, has been willing to tell them both to put up or shut up. If you want someone to blame for rising costs, you need to look no farther than Metro HQ (although many of the main characters have left) and Fairfax government center.

Its not a perfect plan, but its better than the nothing we will get if this process goes on much longer.

Posted by: Dr. Mihi | June 25, 2007 11:51 AM

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