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Construction Delays Drag Out

Ahhh the sounds of summer.

(sound of trucks)

Summer construction that it. As the summer comes to an end, construction on roads, bridges and sidewalks just seems to keep going on and on. While we've been paying attention to falling bridges and leaking tunnels, there's another problem on Massachusetts roads and highways: Construction is taking forever.

Almost half the highway projects now under construction in this state are behind schedule. Things have gotten so bad, even the state now concedes that construction is taking much, much too long. Next month a new state task force will start trying to find ways to speed things up. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

TEXT OF STORY

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Orange construction barrels line parts of Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge from Central Square to the Charles River. Work to repave the road, redo the sidewalks and add trees started three years ago this fall, when MIT professor Fred Moavenzedah greeted a new class of freshmen. They're now about to become seniors, but the Mass. Ave. project is only three-quarters complete. The delay rankles Moanvenzedah, who runs MIT's Center for Construction Research and Education.

FRED MOAVENZEDAH: This paving of this street could have been done in less than 6 months rather than 3 years. Because it is a job that is rather repetitious and they could have done it in 6 months if they had put sufficient man power and equipment, day in day out night in night out.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The delays with repaving Mass Ave. are typical. A WBUR analysis of Mass Highway statistics on its own website show that 43% of the road and highway projects in the construction phase are not on time. And cost overruns on many projects cost taxpayers $30 million dollars a year.

LOUISA PAIEWONSKY: We know that construction delays cost us money

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Highway Commissioner Louisa Paiewonsky.

LOUISA PAIEWONSKY: But I think it's fair to say while there are often good reasons for construction delays including environmental, or work permit restrictions or utility delays that doesn't mean we find that acceptable.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The delays have gotten so bad that the new transportation secretary is creating a construction streamlining task force to ask designers, engineers and contractors how to get things moving faster.

Excuses about the weather and the need to keep roads open while work is being done don't account for all the problems, according to construction experts. First, the cash flow is constantly interrupted, says John Pourbaix executive director of Construction Industries of Massachusetts, which represents construction companies.

JOHN POURBAIX: The state can't afford to pay the overtime. They are putting contracts on limited budget that you can only perform so much work over a period of time or contracts are stopped because they are burning thru cash a little quicker than they had anticipated.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: In 2006 then Governor Mitt Romney didn't file a transportation bond bill so as many as a hundred construction projects stopped. This can drag projects out for years. The biggest project underway now is the $300 million dollar reconstruction and widening of nearly 14 miles of Route 128. It includes replacing 22 bridges. Many parts are behind schedule including work at the 128/95 south interchange in Canton and the overpass on Route 1 in Dedham.

Often contributing to delays is the way contracts are awarded. They go to the lowest bidder. But Professor Moavenzedah says the low bids are often unrealistic.

FRED MOAVENZEDAH: These contractors reduce the cost to bare bone in order to get the job so obviously you expect some delays or cost over runs or complication in the future.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Like going out of business. That happened with the contractor paving Mass Ave. who was also working on two highway overpasses on 128 and repaving Route 9. The highway department doesn't see hiring the low bidder as a problem.

The state also doesn't give any incentive for work to be completed early something John Pourbaix of Construction Industries says could make projects go faster.

JOHN POURBAIX: Our industry would be delighted to see incentives. We certainly have penalties. END CUT HERE

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But Pourbaix says the contractors are seldom penalized for delays because it's not their fault if they come across a problem that wasn't in the design. On most projects, the state hires one firm to design the project and another to build it. Commissioner Paiewonsky wants more focus on the design.

LOUISA PAIEWONSKY: Often construction delays are caused years before in the design process so we are doing an internal exercise looking at whether we are investing enough in the design phase, whether we are being comprehensives enough in the design scope.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But what some construction industry experts say is really holding back progress is the antiquated nature of the road-building industry itself. Barry Patner is a construction lawyer in New York City who wrote a forthcoming book on the industry. He says that because construction companies are small and they don't have the money to invest in new technologies.

BARRY PATNER: The construction industry amongst all industries in America is the lowest spending industry in terms of IT spending for technology and has the lowest per worker productivity of any industry in the U.S.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Such low worker output could mean millions of wasted dollars in Massachusetts, which has a back log of a staggering $8 billion dollars in maintenance projects. And it means more frustrated drivers like these, who were trying to navigate their way through Kenmore Square. The subway and bus stop reconstruction is ten months behind schedule it's already taken longer to rebuild than it took to construct the entire original subway line.

VOXPOP: #1 Construction is truly a pain.
#2 It's pretty much a shame there's are no bike lanes and there is all this construction going on right before students move in you can't even ride your car down it forget a bike.
#3 We're from out of town and the last time we were here it was the same way and it was horrible.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The highway department hopes its streamlining task force will find ways to complete projects 10 to 20 percent faster.

For WBRU I'm Monica Brady-Myerov

This program aired on August 23, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Monica Brady-Myerov Twitter Reporter
Monica Brady-Myerov was formerly a report in WBUR's newsroom.

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