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Tab for Outer Loop grows

How could state highway engineers have underestimated the cost of Culpeper’s Western Outer Loop, a project that has been in the works for 10 years, by $8 million?

That is the question county officials and taxpayers are asking after it became public last week that what the Virginia Department of Transportation said would be a $14.8 million project at the beginning of 2013 now suddenly has a $23 million price tag.

“I was floored and extremely disappointed when I found out,” said Culpeper County Administrator Frank Bossio. “The last figure we heard was $14.8 million, give or take a little.”

That “little,” first reported to be $3 million, is in effect $8 million, and county officials are not only concerned about the astronomical increase but also angered by the way the VDOT handled the situation.

“Knowing in December that the project was going to be $8 million over estimates, why did VDOT continue to spend money buying right-of-way for an under-funded road without notifying the county?” asked Supervisor Sue Hansohn, in whose district the much-needed road would be located.

In mid-January, Rinker Design Associates began sending out purchase proposals for the 33 parcels that would be necessary to build the 1.6-mile stretch of highway to connect Ira Hoffman Lane with the Sperryville Pike.

According to RDA’s senior right-of-way agent, Jimmy Street, five of those parcels have already been purchased. Then, after the county was informed of the almost 60 percent price estimate increase, negotiations with other property owners were halted.

“I was told that engineers needed about $2 million more in fill dirt and that there were some bridging upgrades needed at Balds Run,” Bossio said.

But the county administrator couldn’t believe that the other $6 million was going to a single bridge upgrade, especially when bridging costs had already been built into the project.

“It’s dumbfounding to me,” said former Board of Supervisors Chairman John Coates, a retired VDOT employee. “I was hoping to see this road in my lifetime, but now I’m not so sure.”

Coates was one of the architects of the outer loop system, which, when ultimately completed, will move traffic around the west side of the town of Culpeper from U.S. 29 North at Inlet to U.S. 29 South near the Agricultural Enterprises. State Route 784 is the second leg of the bypass.

“Are [VDOT officials] trying to scratch this project and move the funds to a different project?” Coates asked. “I find it hard to believe that they would get to this point with inadequate funds.”

“This point” is 10 years and about $1.75 million tax dollars spent on design and engineering studies and right-of-way purchases. Culpeper County taxpayers have come up with $8 million in revenue-sharing funds that the state has matched.

Culpeper official shad hoped to build the road before the next wave of residential growth strikes. Now they fear that years of comprehensive planning efforts and a decade of saving up revenue-sharing dollars may go down the drain.

“We [the supervisors] and staff worked with VDOT on this from Day 1,” Coates said. “In all the years I worked at VDOT, I have never seen a project underestimated by this much. Someone dropped the ball.”

VDOT Culpeper District Assistant Administrator Brent Sprinkel could not explain exactly how the project’s estimated cost rose by $8 million, other than to point to the need for extra fill dirt and revamped bridge requirements.

“The problems were not identified until the right-of-way phase,” Sprinkel said. “We hired a consultant early on and that’s where the initial estimates came from.”

Despite the enormous shortfall (the county would have to make up $4 million and the state would come up with the same amount), Sprinkel has not given up on the project.

“We’re still looking for ways to slash costs,” Sprinkel said.

He would not say, however, what cuts might be made.

“I’d rather not speculate,” he said. “We’re looking at reasonable alternatives.”

The outer loop bypass was designed as a two-lane highway built within a four-lane right-of-way, which would allow for later widening. It will span Balds Run, a five-foot wide stream, and one of its smaller tributaries.

Sprinkel said that initially a bridge was planned over Balds Run, but that was changed to a large culvert several years ago.

Culpeper Mayor Chip Coleman (the town is also putting money into this project) said that he too was in shock, especially after construction costs for the inner loop, which also required much fill dirt and the fording of Balds Run a mile downstream, came in $1 million under estimates.

Sprinkel is scheduled to appear before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday to explain what has happened to a project that was, according to VDOT, on schedule and within budget less than six months ago.

Donnie Johnston:

djohnston@freelancestar.com 

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