Lawmaker calls for probe of DOH bids

August 6, 2018 GMT

The Democratic leader in the West Virginia House of Delegates wants to know if the Justice administration deliberately underestimated project costs to promote the “Roads to Prosperity” bond referendum last October.

“It’s certainly an issue worth exploring, and it’s an issue to which the public is entitled to an answer,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said after bids for the first “big-ticket” Roads to Prosperity project, on Interstate 70 in Wheeling, came in more than $100 million over original estimates.

Miley questions whether Gov. Jim Justice’s administration intentionally underestimated project costs to provide voters with an overly long list of statewide projects to be funded with road bonds, or whether Division of Highways officials were not competent in estimating project costs.

“Either one raises questions about the Justice administration,” Miley said.

He said his concern was heightened after Justice unveiled a new website, www.driveforwardwv.com, on Monday to allow West Virginians to track progress on the long list of projects to be funded from about $2.8 billion in bond sales.

The list of projects on the new website doesn’t entirely match up with the Roads to Prosperity project list released by the Justice administration in September, prior to the Oct. 14 statewide vote on the road bond referendum.

Some projects have gone up in cost, while estimated costs for a handful of projects have decreased.

What raised concern for Miley, however, is that many projects listed on the September project list are missing from the new website.

Oakwood Road improvements, from MacCorkle Avenue to Jefferson Road, in Charleston, $65 million.

W.Va. 622 widening in Cross Lanes, $30 million.

U.S. 60 widening, Cabell County, $25 million.

Interstate 79-U.S. 50 interchange, Harrison County, $30 million.

Interstate 79 exit and access road, Monongalia County, $100 million.

New River Parkway, Raleigh and Summers counties, $75 million.

Corridor H, Tucker County, $201.7 million.

“It reeks of maladministration,” Miley said of the potential that the Justice administration touted projects to lure voters to support the road bond referendum, while knowing there probably would not be sufficient bond revenue to fund all the projects.

Brent Walker, spokesman for the Division of Highways, said Wednesday that the projects missing from the new list are omissions, not deletions.

“There were some projects from the Roads to Prosperity list that were not transferred over,” he said of the new website’s listings. “No projects have been taken off the list.”

He said Highways officials were working Wednesday to compile a list of all projects where cost estimates have changed since the list was released in September. He said Highways also is working to revise the new list to include omitted projects.

Walker did not have a response on how Highways’ engineers estimate project costs, including whether they use software programs on the market that are designed to help estimate highway construction costs.

Among projects where estimated costs have increased is the object of last week’s bid opening, the I-70 project in Wheeling. Its cost estimates were upped from September’s $172.5 million to $220 million on the new website.

At a news conference Monday, Transportation Secretary Tom Smith said the scope of that project has been expanded since the original list was released in September.

He also blamed a spike in construction costs for the higher-than-expected bids on the project.

Justice briefly attended the Monday news conference, to unveil the new DOH website, but he left without taking questions from reporters.

At last week’s bid opening, the lowest of three bids for the I-70 project was $275.16 million, 25 percent higher than the $220 million website estimate and nearly 60 percent above the original estimate.

Earlier Monday, Miley sent a letter to Justice outlining his concerns with the I-70 bids.

“I think this is going to be a thorn in the governor’s side for some time to come,” Miley said of the cost estimates. He also questioned if this is another example of lack of oversight by Justice.

Meanwhile, a handful of projects have seen estimated costs decrease. The Interstate 64 widening from U.S. 35 to the Nitro exit in Putnam County, for instance, has dropped from $190 million in the September list to $170 million on the new website.