VT Lawmakers Wary of Bennington Bypass Cost

Tue April 20, 2004 - Northeast Edition

MONTPELIER, VT (AP) The estimated cost of the northern leg of the Bennington Bypass has doubled from a year ago and at least one leading lawmaker is now casting a wary eye on another large Vermont project — the $189-million Chittenden County Circumferential Highway.

The Agency of Transportation’s new cost estimate for construction of the northern leg of the Bennington Bypass is $99.7 million, up more than $50 million from the original projection.

The bypass is planned as a three-quarter ring around Bennington, broken only by Mount Anthony in the southwestern corner of town. The northern leg would connect U.S. Route 7 north of Bennington to Vermont Route 9 east of Bennington and is expected to be completed by 2010.

Four bridges and two interchanges will be included in the northern leg construction, along with major earth excavation that is required in a major hillside excavation.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, has called for an investigation into the estimate.

“It’s outrageous that we’re looking at such an overrun at this point in the project,” Sears said.

A spokesman for Gov. James Douglas said the governor is perplexed by the increase and is investigating. “I want to stress, however, that the governor’s support for the entire Bennington Bypass is unwavering,” said Jason Gibbs.

Patricia McDonald, the secretary of transportation, said the new estimate contains a much more detailed account of the northern leg’s cost.

“The conceptual plan that was submitted in 2001 didn’t deal with a lot of the issues that are in the updated plan,” McDonald said.

In 2003, officials upped the estimate for total construction costs to $56.5 million. In the latest estimate, construction costs alone are pegged at $67.5 million.

Of that $11 million increase, $8 million is for the work from Route 9 to Gore Road and the remaining $3 million is for work on U.S. Route 7’s Exit 2 — the Shaftsbury exit, according to the agency’s summary of costs. Projected costs for these two elements of the project were not included in the original estimate.

Drastic cost estimate increases are common in most of the state’s bigger transportation projects due to the lag time between designing the project and construction bids, said Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington, who sits on the transportation committee.

“If you look at the major projects throughout the state, you’ll see there has been an increase in the final costs. My worry is this could be used as a political smoke screen against the southern leg of the bypass,” Corcoran said.

The southern leg would connect U.S. Route 7 south of Bennington with Vermont Route 9 east of town.

All this has caused Senate President Pro Temp Peter Welch to worry about the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway, also called “the Circ.”

“I definitely don’t want to get caught on the Circ. I mean that’s the mother of all projects, it’s a big ticket item,” said Welch, who serves on both the transportation and finance committees. “It’s the biggest one we have, and I want to make sure we have an accurate handle on what the cost is.”

Construction on the next section of the Circ is slated to resume this spring, although a challenge is pending in federal court.

The 3.8-mi. section in Williston is supposed to cost approximately $40 million. The next two sections — each are just under 4 mi. — are estimated at $33 million and $35 million apiece.

But the recent revelation that the estimated cost of the Bennington Bypass had ballooned from $44 million to $99.7 million is prompting a second look.

Welch said that change in cost estimate will affect what the state can afford to spend on critically needed road and bridge projects.

“This is a $55-million problem. And frankly, I think we need the administration and the agency to tell us how we’re going to deal with it,” Welch said.

He added that the problem “certainly has an impact on our major projects, and I think the Circ is one of them.”

The state last fall received construction bids for work on the Circumferential Highway that’s scheduled for this year. So that cost will probably not be changed. But state officials are now revising cost estimates for subsequent phases of the project scheduled for 2006 and 2007.

William Knight, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a municipal body that oversees transportation projects in Chittenden County, said costs may increase for the later phases of the Circ.

“Those costs are being brought up to date now as the state reviews the engineering on those, and also reviews the environmental issues … So all I can say there is at the time they were done they were the best estimates possible and there may be some change as a result of review of design.”