Bypass spins: Low bid cheers some, not others
To the delight of highway supporters, the bids for the controversial Charlottesville Western Bypass have come in below budget– with the apparent low bid of $136 million. However, that was just the first spin on the project from its top backer, Neil Williamson, head of a business group called the Free Enterprise Forum.
If the low bid stands well below the $197 million budgeted last July by Commonwealth Transportation Board, there's a good reason. It doesn't include much of the design and land-acquisition cost.
In fact, the low bid of $136 million is $18 million over what the state budgeted for the actual construction: $118 million. That means, the project– if officials decide to go forward on it– is over-budget before the first shovel hits the ground, at least to opponents of the Bypass like Supervisor Dennis Rooker, Southern Environmental Law, and Piedmont Environmental Council.
"Clearly the bid is substantially over the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocation," says Rooker, who puts the overage at least at $20 million. And he notes that the bid does not include landscaping, nor does it have soundwalls to protect schools and neighborhoods. Nor has VDOT acquired all the rights-of way.
Rooker has an even bigger problem with the "design-build" project, in which the construction companies design the road based on VDOT specs. The highest bid came in at $214 million– $80 million more than the lowest bid. "That seems to me quite a bit," he says. "The primary question is, what's the difference in design between the bidders? That's got to be significant when it's $80 million. They're not bidding on the same thing."
Supervisor Ken Boyd sees a glass half full with the bids, and key for him is VDOT's assurance that the costs don't add up to more than the $197 million the Commonwealth Transportation Board allocated for the project. "The people I talked to at VDOT are very happy with the bid," says Boyd.
And if VDOT is confident the road can be built without going over budget, that deflates the "scaremongering" Boyd says has been going on. "What's finally put to bed is that it's going to cost $400 or $500 million," he says. The total state allocation for the project is $244.6 million.
"There's still some clarification to be done and still some moving parts," says Boyd, acknowledging that environmental and traffic studies still need to be done.
The low bid comes from Skanska AB, a multinational construction headquartered in Sweden and known for building such projects as MetLife Stadium (best known as the Meadowlands) in New York. In Virginia, the company is currently constructing the Midtown Tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth.
Hailed at the highest echelons of state government for moving traffic past 14 traffic lights to speed the flow of traffic, the long-planned roadway has generated gobs of local controversy because it would consume dozens of homes, potentially contribute to health ailments for nearby schoolchildren, and fail to actually bypass much of the commerce that already cloaks the northern suburbs.
"This would have been 25 percent cheaper if we'd done it 10 years ago," says Williamson.
Updated 2:30pm with additional reporting by Lisa Provence
–Original headline: "Bargain Bypass? Low bid cheers roadway supporters?Read more on: western bypass