Lessons to be learned from Silver Line setbacks?

Michael Dranove Politics, Transportation, Tysons Update

Lori Aratani at The Washington Post reports that workers have found cracks in the concrete support pedestals at the Dulles Airport station. As Aratani writes, “The pedestals, which sit atop 20 concrete columns, are critical because they serve a dual purpose: They help anchor the glass walls on the station’s first level, as well as the glass windscreens that will be installed on its second level.” Apparently, workers had identified problems with the pedestals as early as last April.

Rendering of the finished Dulles station.

The news represents the latest in a series of public setbacks on construction of Phase II of the Silver Line. The contractors at Bethesda-based Clark Construction Group and Capital Rail Constructors (CRC) have still failed to produce a viable solution to issues found in hundreds of concrete rail ties, which are used to help trains move from one track to the other. The ties are 12 to 14 feet long and weigh more than 1,000 pounds each, it will be no small feat to replace them.

Perhaps most scandalously, an FBI investigation was launched into CRC after a whistleblower said he was fired from the company for refusing to lie on the quality control tests of 1,500 concrete panels installed at 5 of the 6 metro stations. After reaching a settlement in which they admitted no wrongdoing, CRC acknowledged that the concrete panels were not properly mixed. However, CRC claims that by doing regular treatment periodically for the next 100 years they can avoid having to replace all the panels.

In a phone call, Marcia McDonnell of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) said that CRC has already begun spraying the sealant and that it should take care of the problem. Furthermore, she said, CRC will be footing the bill for the sealant treatments.

Construction problems seem to have hit Dulles Station particularly hard, as problems began at the station in 2015, when cracks were found in the girders being used to support tracks leading to the stop. The irony is that the original plan was to construct the Dulles metro station underground, but officials balked at the cost and decided to go with the aboveground option. In all fairness, at the time when this decision was made there was no concern about it leading to problems during construction.

Project Labor Agreements

In a previous post, I mentioned how back in 2011-2012, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell led the charge to cut costs during planning of Phase II of the Silver Line. Phase I had cost nearly $3 billion, some $226 million over budget, and Virginia Republicans were incensed when they learned that Phase II was estimated to cost $3.8 billion. Back then, McDonnell and other Republicans placed the blame for Phase I’s high cost on the fact that the MWAA, the organization that is in charge of constructing Phase I and II, used a labor agreement which favored unionized workers.

Controversy stemed from MWAA’s use of something called a Project Labor Agreement (PLA), something which standardizes practices for contractors working on a large project. Proponents say using PLAs is important not only for regulating the wages and hours of workers, but also in order to secure, “an adequate supply of skilled trades for these massive projects, and to ensure effective coordination among the dozens of trades and subcontractors, both union and non-union, for smoothly functioning, safe, and timely construction.”

However, critics of PLAs claim that they reduce competition and can increase the cost of projects by as much as 18 percent. Many pointed to the use of a PLA for the high cost of Phase I of the Silver Line.

Facing criticism and the threat of a lawsuit from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, MWAA backed down and removed the PLA from its planning. In the end, with the PLA cut and Dulles being built above ground, Governor Bob McDonnell was able to proudly announce that he had cut the project’s cost from $3.8 billion to $2.7 billion.

With all of these setbacks, it’s not clear that the cost-cutting was worth it, or even more ironically, when taking into account delays and costs from the mistakes, if it will even save money when all is said and done. Phase I might have gone a bit over budget, but at least it was built and it functions as promised. MWAA claims the Silver Line will finish next February, but given recent events, it’s hard to know if this is really the case.

In all, it’s worth wondering if there are some lessons to be learned from these setbacks.

Image credit: dullesmetro.com