Highway 132 project was trial of errors

Some transportation leaders are fuming at road-building errors costing taxpayers $2 million.

Others are taking a glass-half-full perspective, noting that a frustrating project should come in under budget despite costly changes.

At issue is the east end of Mo- desto's busy Yosemite Boulevard, also known as Highway 132, which should be widened to four lanes to Empire by the time crews finish in October.

The final construction price likely is to be $8.79 million -- a half-million dollars less than California Transportation Commissioners set aside three years ago, but $1.87 million more than initially contracted. The Stanislaus Council of Governments, overseeing its first construction project, is taking some blame.

"The taxpayers' money sure is getting wasted on this project," said Jim DeMartini, a county supervisor and member of StanCOG's policy board. The planning agency "will never manage another project in this county, ever again," he predicted.

The road improvement was supposed to begin reversing a years-old perception that StanCOG had trouble moving vital projects into construction. Its former executive director, Gary Dickson, resigned under heavy pressure in 2004 after paperwork errors led to a six-month delay in $8 million of federal road money coming to the county and its nine cities.

StanCOG's leaders, composed of representatives from the 10 agencies, replaced Dickson the following year with Vince Harris, who had construction experience with San Francisco Municipal Railway and in Alameda County and Houston.

"I'm a construction person," Harris told The Bee in September 2005. "When you're ready to build, you want to see me on the job."

StanCOG was itching to build something -- anything, some say. The Yosemite widening was seen as low-hanging fruit for an agency whose roots are in long-range planning, not construction. Similar agencies in other counties have taken the lead from the state on highways, figuring they can accomplish projects faster than waiting in line for the California Department of Transportation.

"(StanCOG) became project manager of a nothing project, a simple widening," DeMartini said. "They did it for public relations so they could say, 'We got this built.' They were trying to make themselves credible, but they're not. All they've done from the beginning is screw it up."

Storm drainage problems

Other policy board members blame problems that no one could have predicted.

Storm drainage became the project's nemesis. Bright Homes refused to sell an easement across its maintenance department property fronting Yosemite. The right of way was needed for a French drain, a trench version of a rock well that collects rainwater and allows it to percolate into the soil.

Janice Keating, a Modesto councilwoman and StanCOG policy board member, and DeMartini said StanCOG should have secured the easement before paying an engineering firm $1.08 million to design the project, including the drains, a year before Harris arrived. Also, Modesto City Hall objected to removing mature trees along a sidewalk.

StanCOG eventually scrapped the plan and paid the engineering firm more money for a new design with pipes under, not alongside, the road. The change required more money for George Reed Construction, which is building the road, and for construction manager Nolte Associates.

But crews ran into "numerous gas, water and electric facilities," according to a report, requiring more revisions. Last month, Harris proposed a ninth change order for Reed and a second for Nolte. Policy board member Chris Vierra, a civil engineer and Ceres councilman, balked, saying Nolte's engineer should have foreseen the latest problem.

Though books won't be closed until the fall, the latest approvals will result in $1.25 million more than Reed's initial deal, and Nolte essentially doubled its initial contract, from $650,000 to $1.28 million.

"They've eaten up a million and a half," Keating said. "That's still taxpayer dollars. That still could have been used for something."

Another firm, Rajappan & Meyer, was paid $1.27 million for both storm drain designs and then received $322,400 for additional revisions.

Harris said the final project estimate -- $8.79 million, according to The Bee's review -- does not include the firm's initial $1.27 million contract and change order. They were paid from funds other than the state's $9.3 million award, Harris said.

With pre-construction design, the total cost comes to more than $10 million, with more than $2 million resulting from changing course.

Dick Monteith, a county supervisor and StanCOG policy board member, downplayed the extra charges at a recent meeting. "We're still under budget and spending less than anticipated," he said.

Waiting for legal review

Brad Hawn, a civil engineer, Modesto councilman and StanCOG policy board member, said he is "satisfied that things were handled properly." But he is waiting for a legal review by StanCOG's lawyer to see "if somebody needs to be sued, because that's not our money; it's the public's money."

The review would follow project completion, Harris said.

"All in all, the fact that we're still projecting to bring the project in under budget still amplifies that we had a good project," Harris said. As for errors, he said, "These things do happen."

Jeff Grover and Bill O'Brien, county supervisors and StanCOG policy board members, agreed with DeMartini and Keating, saying they would hesitate to put StanCOG in charge of another construction project.

"It was frustrating all along, one stinking mess after another," O'Brien said.

Grover said leaders may try a hybrid arrangement, playing to StanCOG's strengths, such as securing grants, while letting city or county public works departments oversee construction.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.