More Quality-Control Issues Surface in Silver Line Project

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metro inspector general has identified new quality concerns with the work taking place on the second phase of the Silver Line: A sealant applied to prevent water from seeping into hundreds of defective concrete panels may not be working, and the rock ballast in the track beds of the rail yard could cause drainage issues and shifting of the track, reports the Washington Post.

If not corrected, the issues “will create extraordinary cost, maintenance and operational issues early once WMATA [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] takes ownership and control of this project,” wrote Inspector General Geoffrey A. Cherrington.

Construction of the second phase of the Silver Line, an extension of the Washington transit rail system to beyond Washington Dulles International Airport, is already a year behind schedule. The latest deficiencies add to the list of quality issues raised about the $2.8 billion construction project. Last year officials discovered problems with hundreds of precast concrete panels installed at five of the six stations. The defect could lead to water seepage and premature deterioration. The general contractor applied a sealant to address the issue, but tests have shown that the coating was insufficient in at least 20% of the sampled panels.

The 11.5-mile Silver Line was originally scheduled to begin running in January 2020. The expected opening date is now not expected until “mid- to late 2020,” says the Post. Project officials say they don’t know if the re-work, change orders and delays will push the project cost beyond the budgeted $550 million contingency fund.

Bacon’s bottom line: Clearly, Phase 2 of the Silver Line is a troubled project. The question is. how culpable are the contractors and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which has responsibility of overseeing the project before handing it over to WMATA? The construction industry is grappling with labor shortages nationally and, no doubt, in the Washington area. But the screw-ups identified so far appear to be quality-control issues that are the responsibility of management.

If there are significant cost over-runs, who will pay for them? Users of the Dulles Toll Road, who are footing much of the bill already? The taxpayers? How about the contractors? How about MWAA? Is anyone in the Northam administration on top of this?

(Hat tip: Rob Whitfield)

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15 responses to “More Quality-Control Issues Surface in Silver Line Project

  1. Metro is a large, complex system run by humans who do make mistakes.

    I’d never advocate that we excuse incompetence or “bad” management but just point out that it happens in the private sector also – cue the Boeing disaster or Evon Musk’s problems or check out Consumers Reports listing of cars with reliability issues.

    But perhaps a question -does the government contract out large scope projects that include management?

    VDOT does – they did that with the Express Lanes and yep they’re accused of “selling our roads to a foreign company” who is “making a profit over screwing drivers”… gee simlar to the agnst about the Dulles Toll road!

    Private sector water systems are often in the news – terrible water and outrageous monthly fees and folks beg the state to “do something” – the same state they accuse of incompetence!

    HOAs are another example and the irony is that people DEMAND that the incompetent and inefficient govt do something about it!

    So we’re caught between govt-led with screwups and private-sector led which is accused of making profits at he expense of taxpayers…!!!

    dang if you do and dang if you don’t!!!

    Oh, and all those Euoropean “socialist” countries – for some reason they seem to do mass transportation “right” – both Europeans and visitng Americans speak highly of their systems … and of course they’re not only subsidized but run by the govt! Ditto for Asia!

    We just can’t seem to do anything right!

  2. The WaPo has a piece today by a labor official blaming the quality-control issues on lowest-bid cost cutting by contractors due to Virginia’s Republican administration and GA who pressured WMATA to reject a Project Labor Agreement for the Silver Line. The implication is that the contractors responsible for the defective concrete panels and rail ties and so forth planned all along to cut corners in order to make a profit in a hostile contracting environment. I’m sure there are other opinions on that — any comment?

  3. This is an example of one of my pet peeves. For cost overruns or quality problems, people will blame government, without realizing (or ignoring) that it is the private sector that is doing the actual work. From what I have read, the private contractor should be responsible for correcting the problems and should have to eat the additional cost.

    • If the contract was properly written, there will be penalty clauses and the contractor will share in the pain.

    • Whoah — just got the following email from someone who claims that in 2007, as part of the agreement between the Commonwealth and MWAAA, 75% of any cost overruns shall be paid by Dulles Toll Road users. I have not had a chance to confirm independently, but I believe my source is reliable. Indeed, he says he confirmed it with the MWAA general counsel.

      • This report linking efforts to bilk Silver Line cost overruns (including horrendous cost proposals for Dulles Airport Station) into attempt to fleece Dulles Toll Road users (as early as 2007) makes total sense. The systemic corruption and incompetence scandal here orginally grew out of the then decade old systemic corruption of the pre-Potter management of Dulles Airport that took control in the late 1990s. Around 2010 this rampant corruption triggered a Dept. of Transportation investigation that heavily involved the FBI. A long and damning report was issued. By this time the labor unions were heavily evolved, and have been major bad actor. Dick is right. VDOT had no responsibility for problems and played a constructive roll in trying to clean the mess up. It’s been a long battle apparently up there in Northern Virginia.

        • There is no doubt a corrupt Dulles airport management team successfully took over the toll road in order to try to use tolls from the Dulles Toll road to offset airport costs of all sorts and kinds, to promote private interests as well as airport interests. That record is plain as day should one undertake the laborious effort of going through a voluminous record as I did earlier. Meanwhile, the Washington Post consistently avoided and hid the issue for now 20 years. Its largely clueless reporters have been duped cheerleaders of airport press releases and otherwise useful fools in the name of blindly promoting mass transit.

      • I’d put this in the trust but verify column. So someone is claiming that it’s in the agreement that any/all contractors who overrun will be held harmless and Dulles Toll Road users will pick up the tab? Call me skeptical. Let’s see the agreement and perhaps in the future – BEFORE we print it!

      • Interesting. And who were the governors of Virginia from 2002 – 2010? Uh oh! Could it have been the dynamic duo of dysfunction – Mark Warner and Tim Kaine?

        A lowest cost bid with 75% or overruns to come from toll payers. What could possibly go wrong?

        • Tim Kaine was governor when the State turned over the Dulles Toll Road and its revenues to MWAA. And don’t forget, the Silver Line was built with an extra station in front of SAIC when Gerry Connolly was both an SAIC executive and chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

    • This follows the lithurgy of Libertarians who often claim no matter what the govt does – even when they contract out – that they fail – that the private sector would do it better … and then that leads to the endless blogs that highlight govt screwups…. it’s just in their mental makeup and pointing out all the screwups makes them “I told you so” happy.

      We already have less govt and more private sector in most 3rd world countries… where things like buildings fall down due to cost-cutting and of course the Libs blame that on govt because they did not have building codes – but even if they did – it’s still their fault because the standards were inadequate or the enforcement was lax, yadda yadda… the theme song of Libertarianism….

      • “This follows the lithurgy of Libertarians who often claim no matter what the govt does…”

        As usual, Larry, you are making stuff up. My philosophy, and that of other contributors to this blog, is that certain functions can be performed only by government. That said, we need to create mechanisms for holding government accountable. When government spends $5.8 billion on the largest infrastructure project in Virginia history, then someone needs to be in charge to make sure the job gets done on time and on budget.

        As I’ve said before many times, you are a relentless apologist for a failed status quo.

  4. We need a top rate engineering consultant to assess situation and specify the needed fix. Ugh. Par for the course these days unfort we have lost our way.

  5. Keep in mind that the transportation aspects of the Silver Line were long ago made secondary to enriching landowners and developers by allowing them massive increases in density near rail stations. Even the optimistic predictions for its use fell way below the actual usage in places such as Bethesda and many stations in Downtown Washington. You all need to spend a week in Tysons watching the automobile traffic come into, and out of, Tysons.

    On a positive note, there has been a significant percentage increase the in ridership to, and from, the McLean station when Cap One’s new HQ building opened.

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