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Wilson Bridge warning issued


Federal transportation inspectors are warning, before ground is even broken, that the long-awaited replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge is likely to run $300 million over budget and behind schedule.

The warnings, contained in a yet-to-be-released report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general, drew a sharp response yesterday from Maryland and Virginia officials, who called the federal agency's conclusions severely flawed.

According to federal inspectors, the $2.2 billion bridge cost likely will increase to $2.5 billion or more. Without agreements on how to maintain and pay for the new bridge, they also warn, the scheduled construction start this month could be delayed.

So far, state officials have seen nothing but a one-page summary of the findings, but they responded with a two-page letter to the nation's top transportation official, disputing what they described as "serious inaccuracies and misrepresentations" in the report's conclusions. Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari and his counterpart in Virginia, Shirley J. Ybarra, asked to meet with federal Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta when the report is made public.

"For the 190,000 people per day sitting in traffic on that bridge, they need to know it's under construction, on time and on budget," Porcari said in an interview. "We don't intend to let anything slow down the progress on replacing this bridge."

The inspector general's office yesterday declined to release the report, and a spokesman said they are reviewing updated financial projections provided Wednesday by the states.

Transportation Secretary Mineta stressed through a spokesman that the federal government has no plans to pull back from the project, despite the concerns raised about its costs and timetable.

"I remain committed to working with both states to resolve this," Mineta said, "and I've invited the state leaders to continue the discussion with me until we can work out the differences."

Chet Lunner, Mineta's spokesman, predicted that the inspector general's office would change its conclusions before issuing a final report. "It really is a work in progress," he said.

The deteriorating six-lane Wilson bridge spans the Potomac River and connects Prince George's County and Alexandria, Va. It is a vital link not only for Washington commuters, but also for East Coast traffic along Interstate 95.

State officials yesterday agreed that key agreements for financing and maintaining the new bridge had yet to be signed, but said that is because in March, Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead advised them to wait until after his inspectors completed their report.

"I was at that meeting with the inspector general, and that was the advice we got," said Chip Nottingham, Virginia's transportation commissioner.

It is a significant issue because the documents must be signed before workers begin sometime in the next month to pour the bridge foundation. However, officials said, Maryland has already signed off, and the paperwork, now with Virginia, is nearly done.

Federal inspectors also claim that:

Change orders, right-of-way acquisition and construction will cost at least $287 million more than expected. Environmental protection, lawsuits and rising energy prices also are expected to boost the expense by an undetermined amount.

Other funding commitments -- including $1.5 billion in federal money, $200 million apiece from Virginia and Maryland, and $15 million from the District of Columbia -- fall $184 million short of the existing $2.2 billion cost.

Both states intend to go to Congress for additional funding.

Despite a federal directive to strengthen oversight of the project, managers have not been required to prepare a detailed plan for managing the work.

Without seeing details of the report, state officials said yesterday that it was difficult to respond. But they said they have factored potential overruns into their planning. The additional $184 million will come out of federal highway dollars the states intend to use for constructing bridge interchanges at Maryland Route 210 and Telegraph Road in Virginia.

Porcari said that neither state intends to ask Congress for more money because lawmakers approved $600 million in additional funds last fall.

Maryland also has submitted a management plan to federal highway authorities, and Virginia intends to do so before moving forward with construction of its part of the project, Porcari said.

Parker F. Williams, head of the State Highway Administration in Maryland, was present when federal inspectors summarized their report this week at his office in Baltimore.

"We have information that refutes some of this, and we feel they have an obligation to pull back and make some changes," he said. "We left the meeting with no optimism that that in fact would occur."

The first phase of the bridge replacement began in November, when workers started dredging the Potomac. That job was completed in January, two weeks ahead of schedule and at about $161,000 under budget, officials said.

Within the next month, workers will begin building the bridge foundation under a $125 million contract that came in 5 percent under budget, state officials say.

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