Fort Eustis Bridge Replacement nearly $3 million over budget, with taxpayers picking up tab

Posted at 5:32 PM, Jul 23, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-23 17:32:32-04

Delay after delay after delay--the work on Fort Eustis Boulevard seems never ending.

For more than a year, drivers heading to and from Fort Eustis have dealt with traffic backups and congestion, all thanks to the replacement of a 54-year old bridge over the CSX rail road tracks, less than a mile from the base gates.

Now, a NewsChannel 3 investigation is discovering those construction delays have racked up millions of dollars in extra costs for taxpayers.

According to Newport News City Council documents from 2012, the bridge was supposed to cost $4.682 million, split in half between the city and VDOT.

Two years later, the price tag has risen to $7.444 million--nearly $3 million over budget, with Newport News taxpayers on the hook for most of those increased costs.

So what do their elected leaders think?

We tried to ask the Mayor and City Council members--visiting many of their homes and businesses this week.

No one would talk on camera--with the exception of Councilwoman Tina Vick.
NewsChannel 3 asked her if she believed the cost over runs were the city’s fault, or someone else’s fault.

“See, I'm not sure,” said Vick.

So why are Vick and other council members reluctant to say much?

That’s because the City of Newport News is now taking their bridge designers to court.

Their fight is over mistakes made in the initial planning stages of the project, and who is at fault for them.

“Of course we will be doing all we can to make sure everything is fair for the taxpayers of our city,” said Vick.

The problems began in April of last year—that’s when the bridge’s contractor started site demolition.

When utility companies were called out to mark their lines, the city discovered the existence of fiber-optic cables underneath the ground where the new bridge piers were supposed to go.

According to officials in Newport News, there were no signs on the CSX site that talked about cables being underground, and since it was private property, they didn’t show up on the city’s records.

They admit they didn’t check with CSX or the utilities before design plans or the bridge’s budget were approved.

In addition, project planners didn’t take into account existing Dominion Virginia power lines above the bridge, so they had to redesign one of the bridge abutments using auguring techniques, which is more expensive than the pile-driving they had planned to do.

Together, it cost about $1.6 million--half paid by Newport News tax payers, with VDOT picking up the rest of the tab.

But the problems didn't end there.

Earlier this year, engineers realized the bridge design didn't meet the state's mandated load rating--meaning the bridge wasn't strong enough to hold the traffic it needed.

They had to stop work on the bridge until it could be redesigned to meet VDOT requirements.

June 24th, the Newport News City Council was asked to approve another $1.2 million in funding.

We asked Councilwoman Vick what she thought when she heard that.

“Well, anytime you have an original budget, and they come to you asking for more, there is concern,” said Vick.

The City of Newport News says not all of this is their fault.

They filed an $800,000 dollar claim with the bridge's project design firm to try and get some money back, and they say more claims could potentially be on the way.

Still, the Deputy City Attorney admits in a FOIA response letter to NewsChannel 3 that Newport News is responsible for about $1.6 million of the extra costs.

"The city would have been obligated to pay these amounts regardless of any issues subject to claims asserted,” wrote Deputy City Attorney Joseph Durant.

So NewsChannel 3 just had to ask Councilwoman Vick if she believed the project had been managed properly.

“If it has not been managed properly, Laurie, we will do what needs to be done to get it back on track, and make it fair and equitable for the citizens. I can guarantee you that,” said Vick.

In the end, it’s not just about the millions extra in costs, but also the continuing traffic backups.

The bridge was supposed to be completed in October, but because of all these mistakes, drivers will be suffering through an additional six months of congestion.

The city says construction is 60% complete, and should be finished in April of 2015--as long as there are no more delays.

NewsChannel 3 tried to get the City of Newport News to comment on camera for this story.

First, the Deputy City Attorney told us no--then, the City Manager said yes--but when we wouldn't push back the air date for our story, the “yes” became a “maybe”.

Over the phone, Newport News officials say it’s not common practice to check utility lines before the design phase of a project--only before actual construction.

They feel the $1.6 million in extra taxpayer money used to fix the utility line issues should not be looked at as being “over budget.”

They say if the costs had been known before the money was appropriated for the project, the bridge would still have been approved by City Council, even with the bigger price tag, because it was badly in need of replacement.