Hide and leak? Dam costs at least $20 million more
The four leaders wore grave faces at the hastily called press conference. What they wished were a $37 million dam might, the press release said, cost around $70 million. But the financial news is worse– at least $20 million worse.
As revealed by the Hook September 22, the day of the press conference, millions in costs to shore up Interstate 64 from reservoir waters were missing from the new tally–- with water boss Tom Frederick's explanation that he didn't agree with the numbers. Now the Hook has uncovered further costs totaling over $8 million unaccounted for by the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority.
"This doesn't surprise me," says local businessperson Keith Rosenfeld. "It's the same pattern we've seen throughout this process–- conveniently hiding costs that don't support their preconceived notions."
Authority board chair Mike Gaffney referred all questions on the matter to Frederick, who declined to discuss the September 22 press release. Bearing the seals of the Authority, City, County, and the County Service Authority, the release claimed that the new price was "approximately $70 million," a figure that should be "compared to $37 million." Most news organizations took the cue.
In an email, Frederick sticks to his own memo, a document that makes no such comparisons, but which does admit that the cost could rise "beyond" $70 million.
Beyond indeed. According to attachments to his memorandum, the price for constructing the project in 2009 or 2010 is $82.3 million to $98.8 million. And yet even Frederick's report does not include the following items that he has long claimed as necessities:
* $ 160,000 Dam preliminary design
* $ 2,400,000 Dam final design
* $ 2,630,000 Dam bidding & construction engineering
* $ 420,000 Environmental consulting and mitigation engineering
* $ 2,940,000 Environmental mitigation implementation.
These five items were accounted for in a January 2008 cost-breakdown the Hook obtained from Frederick earlier this year. Combined, they add another $8.55 million that could raise the total to $90.1 million and to as much as $107.4 million, a near tripling of the oft-repeated estimate of $37 million.
But, again, Frederick doesn't agree.
"It was never the purpose of the report to provide a new total estimate of all potential project costs," he says in an email. "In fact, the report itself clearly states that 'RWSA staff is not ready to endorse any recent estimates as representative of a probable project cost.'"
One of the biggest possible cost savings Frederick appears to embrace–- and the key to keeping costs from hitting triple digits–- would come from building I-64 embankments able to withstand only a "100-year" flood. That's ironic because one of the alleged emergencies forcing this project is the state's demand for an upgrade of the existing Ragged Mountain Dam to handle a millennial flood like the nearly 30 inches that poured down on Nelson County one August night in 1969.
Frederick downplays the embankment figures as "preliminary," and because he hasn't yet convened an expert panel to sift through cost-cutting measures, he calls it "unfair" to treat embanking I-64 to withstand a millennial flood as a necessary cost.
If it turns out that the Virginia Department of Transportation (and a VDOT spokesperson is inquiring) would seriously consider surrounding such a vital roadway with a new lake banked by mere 100-year embankments, then indeed the project could save $10 million. But that's not the end of the questionable assumptions.
Schnabel Engineering, which Frederick hired in August on an emergency $30,000 contract, believes it can save money by quarrying gravel on-site at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, a space now considered so pristine that pets are banned and where signs warn walkers to "hike quietly."
Schnabel also plans to deal with fractured rock by using grout to seal potential leaks. In all, Schnabel believes it can save at least $13.5 million. And at least three media outlets have dutifully subtracted that amount from the oft-repeated $70 million figure to claim the project is down to $56.5 million.
Underpinning the project is a pipeline so preliminary that City Council rose up in outrage November 3 to demand a halt to the dam until the pipeline is properly budgeted. (The resolution came just six weeks after Frederick claimed that all local governments "remain solidly behind the 50-year water plan.")
As for Rosenfeld, who co-owns the Barracks Road eatery HotCakes, he now feels misled enough to be drawn to Citizens for a Sustainable Water Supply, a group that has been sounding warnings about questionable statements and assumptions by the Rivanna Authority.
"If they muddle through and build their dream," says Rosenfeld, "it's the ratepayers who'll be stuck with a huge tab. The doubling of rates over the past five years is just the beginning."