Meadows of Dan: 12/21/2005


New law paves way to success on U.S. 58
Decision could be made much faster because all of the professionals on the team could be together at the same time.

By Ray Reed –

MEADOWS OF DAN — The ribbon-cutting Tuesday on a new three-mile bypass on U.S. 58 is worth noting because: It occurred when they said it would.

Without delays, without cost overruns.

Those efficiencies can be credited to the Public Private Transportation Act, according to builder Branch Highways and the Virginia Department of Transportation. Branch and VDOT set the target date two years ago.

This is the first highway project in Western Virginia to be completed under the PPTA, a 1995 state law that opened the door to new highway contracting practices.

Motorists traveling above U.S. 58 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, near the Mabry Mill landmark, probably didn’t care about the savings in time and money.

In fact, they may not have noticed the dedication ceremonies being held on the pavement a few hundred yards away. With strips of grassy shoulders separating the bridge’s pavement from its railings, parkway motorists may not be aware they’re passing above a four-lane highway.

Highway officials on Tuesday switched traffic back to the old two-lane 58 so festivities could take place on the new pavement.

Food, live bluegrass music, state Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer, and Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Phil Francis were the highlights.

Parkway officials were so concerned about this bridge that, once they agreed to its design, VDOT and Branch put this site first among the segments of U.S. 58 to be widened between Hillsville and Stuart.

Two years ago, on Dec. 16, 2003, a Roanoke Times article said, “Construction on the $20 million segment is expected to begin in early spring 2004 and is scheduled to open to traffic by the end of 2005.”

The four-lane bypass opened to traffic Nov. 7. Costs, as of Monday, stood at $19.97 million, said VDOT officials and Larry Dickenson of Branch Highways.

The project was finished perhaps six months sooner, and for $1 million less, than the way highway contracts usually are managed, Dickenson said.

Typically, a $20 million road project would have a dozen or more “change orders,” or amendments made to the contract when unforeseen construction problems occurred. Those changes normally add 4 percent or 5 percent to the cost of the job — and delay its completion six months, Dickenson said.

Robbie Williams, VDOT’s project manager on U.S. 58, said the cost was “less than if we had administered” all phases of the project’s management. Williams and other VDOT officials estimated the savings at “somewhere between break-even and $1 million.”

The PPTA allowed the U.S. 58 bypass to be different. It let Branch Highways and its consultants tweak the designer’s plans when problems arose, without the time-consuming approvals normally needed from multiple VDOT offices, Dickenson said.

“We had the latitude to negotiate any additional right of way if we wanted to change the alignment of road, which we did. That was a new experience, and it worked out pretty well,” Dickenson said.

Another difference is management of the project’s effect on wetlands, leaving Branch responsible for those effects for several years.

Also, the technique for building a bridge to carry the Blue Ridge Parkway over U.S. 58 was changed at Branch’s request, and without much delay, after the contract was signed, Williams said.

Dickenson said the work was done to VDOT standards with Williams’ oversight.

“We were able to make decisions much faster” because all the professionals on the team could be together at the same time, Dickenson said.

The changes were approved by Williams and inspectors from Branch consultant HNTB Corp., a Kansas City-based transportation engineering company.

Should problems surface later because of the changes, Branch Highways probably will be responsible for correcting them under the terms of the PPTA contract.

The PPTA often is mentioned in connection with proposals to widen Interstate 81.

U.S. 58 has been financed totally with tax dollars. The PPTA proposals for I-81 mostly involve using tolls to pay for building the road, with private corporations managing the money and taking the risks of construction and financing.

This bypass was the first step in replacing a 36-mile, two-lane segment of U.S. 58 from Hillsville to Stuart, making it a mostly four-lane highway from Interstate 77 to Virginia Beach.

The next construction segment is slated to be a Hillsville bypass, and Gov. Mark Warner included $45 million for that five-mile segment in the transportation budget he proposed last week.

“We will work actively to preserve that money in the budget,” Dickenson said. Probably the most challenging phase of rebuilding U.S. 58 will be on 3,300-foot Lovers Leap Mountain in Patrick County.

That will come after the Hillsville bypass is completed, Dickenson said.

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