MassHighway Begins First Four Road Projects Under New $3.5B Bond Bill

Wed September 17, 2008 - Northeast Edition
James A. Merolla

It is one thing to sign a major transportation bond bill. It is another thing to actually fund it, especially in these trying financial times.

Yet, even beyond this, new attempts to address the Commonwealth’s huge list of Massachusetts highway, road and bridge projects are actually giving the region’s construction and contracting industry hope. Since late April, the state has been earmarking projects with an emphasis to bid, begin and finish them — not just on time and on budget — but early and under budget. And — in full disclosure — to give the public new updates online, along the way.

Big Dig, Big Hit

Massachusetts has long had a major PR problem when it comes to major construction projects, a public relations hole dug literally and figuratively by the Big Dig — the massive $14.5 billion Boston road and highway tunnel project, which may cost taxpayers a staggering $22 billion after interest on loans, overrun costs and lawsuits over a 21-year building period are calculated.

Massachusetts officials know that when people think of the Commonwealth and new highways, they are the punch line to many off-color jokes.

So, in April, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick moved the state forward in signing a $3.5 billion Transportation Bond Bill, which included the major reform of reducing the average highway, road or bridge project delivery time by more than 40 percent.

To that end, the first four major road construction projects heading the state’s long list — totaling approximately $28.4 million — are now being bid:

• Medford & Somerville, Mass. — Interstate Highway 93 resurfacing — $9.8 million

• Wareham, Mass. — I-195, I-495 and Route 25 ramps repaving, bridge rehabilitation — $7.9 million

• Mansfield, Mass. — Route 106 (Chauncy Street) underpass rehabilitation — $5.8 million

• Bourne, Mass. — Route 6 Scenic Highway at Edgehill Road raised median, signal — $4.9 million

“These four bid advertisements represent the beginning of a long-term commitment to help address the backlog of road and bridge construction projects across the Commonwealth through a streamlined process that is thoughtful and carefully managed,” said Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen.

“MassHighway is embracing the road and bridge project completion reforms in a way that will deliver results in a safe and timely manner,” added MassHighway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky.

At least 23 additional projects have been identified for bid advertisement under the 120-day reform timeline. That process started in May and continues through September 2008. The total value of the 27 road and bridge construction projects on the relatively “fast” track — including the four listed above — is estimated at an impressive $212 million.

Construction must be authorized within 120 days of that advertisement under a reform in the bond bill for the state to try to cut more than 40 percent from the average project delivery time.

For example, according to officials, a typical MassHighway 10-year highway reconstruction project would be dramatically reduced to 5.8 years, saving millions of dollars.

Small Town Pleased

In the small hamlet of Mansfield, a town that sits almost exactly halfway between Boston and Providence, R.I., the $5.8 million Route 106 underpass is among the first four major Massachusetts road projects expedited by Gov. Patrick — and, perhaps, the most welcome.

It has bothered local town officials for years now. Not only is the bridge cracking, but rain runoff creates dangerous driving conditions onto the road below.

Mansfield Public Works Director Lee Azinheira said he was pleased to hear the Route 106 project had gone out to bid. Town Engineer John Sullivan has worked to ensure that all goes smoothly, Azinheira said.

“Everything on our end that needed to be taken care of was taken care of,” Azinheira said. But Azinheira pointed out that the project will not be easy for drivers. “[It will] create a lot of chaos [downtown],” Azinheira said. Traffic will be reduced to one side of the underpass while crews work on the other. Still, he is grateful.

In signing the $3.5 billion transportation bond bill, Gov. Patrick was making a statement that cash-strapped Massachusetts was making an investment in road and bridge projects across the Commonwealth over three years, while announcing MassHighway’s innovative plan to save millions of dollars in inflation costs.

“These long-term investments will help address decades of neglect in infrastructure by rebuilding roads and bridges, while creating thousands of jobs in every corner of the Commonwealth,” said Patrick. “Along with the streamlining reforms announced [here], we want to rebuild the public’s confidence in government’s ability to deliver projects in a safe and timely manner.”

The MassHighway streamlining plan will include cutting red tape, working longer hours, using technology to save time and implementing incentives and penalties to keep projects on budget and on time. The plan also increases transparency to the public through a new Web-based “Scorecard” with information on project delivery, road and bridge conditions, travel safety and mobility.

Portions of the transportation bond bill took effect immediately in April, infusing federal matching transportation dollars along with state Chapter 90 transportation funds to communities across the Commonwealth. These investments also will help create new jobs, as the administration works to foster economic growth amid a softening national economy.

“With this transportation bond bill, the Legislature and Governor Patrick are taking several bold steps to improve the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure,” said House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi. “These meaningful investments will go a long way toward fixing our ailing roads and bridges while the reforms make clear our commitment to cutting costs and increasing efficiencies in the system.”

“Safe roads, highways, bridges and rails are essential to all citizens and to the economic growth of our Commonwealth,” said Senate President Therese Murray. “I am proud that we worked together to get this bill done in time for the construction season and with important reforms that are critical first steps in handling our transportation funding gap and changing how the state’s transportation agencies do business.”

MassHighway Scorecard Reforms

The Executive Office of Transportation and MassHighway leadership scoured each step of the road and bridge construction process from start to finish beginning at the moment an infrastructure need is identified through the final completion and opening of a project.

With a streamlined process also comes the need to keep the public clearly informed about the measures of success. The new MassHighway Scorecard is online for public viewing.

It will offer quarterly reports on progress in delivering quality projects and safe, convenient roads.

Scorecards will measure:

• Conditions: roads, bridges, and pavement

• Safety: accident information

• Mobility: congestion, commute times

• Efficiency: up-to-date timelines on construction projects.

Transportation Secretary Bernard Cohen said the governor’s transportation reform project is moving forward on many fronts.

“MassHighway streamlining and transparency reforms build on recent reform announcements, including the Governor’s Accelerated Bridge Repair program and the pilot program to sell FastLane transponders and MBTA CharlieCards in motor vehicle registry branches,” said Secretary Cohen. “These reforms stress efficient delivery of services in a collaborative approach that is literally changing the way we do business in delivering transportation services.”

“I applaud the governor for signing this legislation, which represents a great deal of work and collaboration between everyone involved,” said Sen. Steven Baddour, senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation. “Beyond the much needed infrastructure improvements and maintenance this bill sets forth, the reforms it presents through the streamlining and expediting of projects means a great deal of cost savings for taxpayers during these tough financial times.”

“This bond bill will serve as a statewide economic stimulus measure, putting people to work and providing important upgrades to the Commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure,” said Rep. Joseph F. Wagner, house chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation.

Tidbits to Read

As listed in the July MassHighway Scorecard, when the state feels the need to intervene, it means extra meetings with the contractors doing the work.

“We are also working closely with design consultants and contractors to improve quality and increase timeliness. MassHighway has piloted the use of incentives and disincentives in some contracts to reduce project delays,” MassHighway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky wrote on MassHighway’s Web site.

Here are some tidbits from the most recent quarterly Scorecard:

• Newbury, Mass. — Route 1A over the Parker River: During the initial stages of this bridge replacement project, advanced deterioration was discovered making the continued operation of the bridge during construction prohibitive. As a result the construction phasing was changed to a single stage with all traffic detoured. To decrease the impact on the community, MassHighway directed the contractor to work extended hours from the outset while a more detailed acceleration plan was negotiated. The approved acceleration plan will result in the bridge being re-opened in spring 2009, 17 months ahead of the original fall 2010 completion date, and with a cost savings of approximately $340,000.

• Longmeadow-Springfield to Bernardston, Mass. — I-91 Intelligent Transportation Systems Design-Build Project: MassHighway will soon be awarding a contract to begin a Design-Build project to install a fiber optic cable backbone over 60 miles of I-91 and I-291 with variable message signs, closed circuit television cameras and other IT infrastructure. The Design-Build project delivery method combines final design and construction into a single contract, saving time and money over the traditional Design-Bid-Build delivery method. Also, by implementing construction streamlining elements during negotiations with the Design-Build contractor, MassHighway will realize a planned reduction in construction time from 36 months to 26 months, also resulting in significant cost savings.

• Dennis, Mass. — Reconstruction of Swan River Road: This project involves the road reconstruction project and includes a pilot program to expedite the relocation of utilities. Normally, the affected utility companies are responsible for relocating their facilities prior to or during construction. On this project, an agreement with the primary utility company, MassHighway has assumed responsibility for moving the utilities and is paying its construction contractor directly to perform these necessary services. With responsibility and control of the movement of utilities under MassHighway, this component of the project should be completed in a timely manner.

The Scorecard may be viewed online at: www.mass.gov/eot/scorecard.

Bond Bill Highlights

The $3.5 billion bill includes $2.4 billion in federal matching dollars for rebuilding roads and bridges over a three-year period. Other funding highlights include:

• $700 million for State Improvement Plan commitments to increase transit access across eastern Massachusetts. This includes funding for the Fairmount Commuter Rail Line through Boston, Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford, Mass., design and engineering for a Red Line-Blue Line connector between the Government Center and Charles, MGH Stations, and creation of 1,000 commuter parking spaces to ease use of mass transit.

• Maintaining last year’s increase to $150 million per year to fund Chapter 90 transportation grants to cities and towns, which will fully fund those improvements and provide an immediate positive impact on main streets and other local roads.

• $10 million for mass transit planning projects that support economic growth and promote geographic equity, including planning efforts for the South Coast Rail extension to Fall river and New Bedford, the Urban Ring project, and the Blue Line extension to Lynn.

• $8 million, matched with $8 million in federal funds, for the initial improvements to the Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line, delivering shorter trip times.

The bond bill also includes many transportation reform provisions:

• Requires calculation of life-cycle costs along with design/construction costs in project planning.

• Establishes a deferred maintenance trust fund for maintenance and repair.

• Directs MTA and MBTA to align retiree health insurance benefits with those of Commonwealth employees for those under age 65 retiring after 2008. Currently, MBTA retirees pay 0 percent of insurance premiums and MTA retirees pay 5 percent in some cases. Certain MBTA retiree health insurance changes would take effect after expiration of the pending collective bargaining agreement in 2010, which is currently in arbitration.

• Requires MBTA to compare costs of its current retirement plan to the cost of a plan that requires 25 years of service and minimum age of 55 to retire. Currently, MBTA employees may retiree following 23 years of service with no minimum age.

• Requires the Executive Office of Transportation and the Executive Office of Public Safety to issue regulations on the use of police details on public-works projects and to submit reports on the costs of police details on state-funded projects during the preceding 5 years.

• Requires MTA to submit reports on cost savings and the feasibility of converting 90 percent of cash toll lanes to FastLanes and to inventory all MTA assets. CEG