WASTEBOOK: Boondoggle Boulevard
Federal Highway Administration and Department of Housing and Urban Development
More than $341 million was spent reconstructing just 12 ½ miles of a New Jersey road on which fewer than 7,000 people live. The price tag comes to about $27.3 million per mile.
The stretch of Route 35 running between Seaside Heights and Bay Head was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.
Even though the project was fast-tracked by state officials, it was finished a year behind schedule and $76 million over budget.
More than $20 million of this excess was spent to pay contractors for not working. All work was stopped during the summer of 2014, but the contractors continued to be paid. Construction was shut down for Memorial Day weekend and then halted altogether from June 13 to September. Contractors were paid again for being idle when construction was stopped while pipes were being installed under the road. “Those numbers are mind-boggling,” says Barry LePatner, a construction contract attorney. He points out “a suspension of work shouldn’t add up to ($25 million) in labor costs.”
Government officials cannot explain how another $23 million was even spent.
State officials justify the exorbitant costs by claiming “this is not just a resurfacing job.” Instead, Route 35 was “redesigned as a state-of-the-art roadway.” This included reconstructing the roadway, landscaping to enhance medians, replacing miles of gas, sewer and water lines under the road and adding bicycle lanes on the northbound side of the road.
Anthony Attanasio, who was an assistant commissioner of the state DOT until April 2014, says the setbacks were caused, in part, because the plans for the area were inaccurate. The planners “were essentially blind to what utilities were beneath the road.” As a result, “this created a stop-and-start pattern— contractors would dig down and find an unmarked gas pipe, then they would have to call the gas company and wait for it to inspect or replace the pipe.”
Democrat state Senator Raymond Lesniak calls the project “a boondoggle” and is urging the U.S. Department of Transportation and Congress to investigate. “The Route 35 reconstruction project is the poster child for what’s wrong with the state and federal government’s Sandy relief effort,” says Lesniak.
The high price of the project was only a bump in the road for the state, however, because most of the costs were billed to the federal government.
“Very little of the cost for the Route 35 reconstruction project will be paid by New Jersey taxpayers,” according to Steven Schapiro, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
“Of the $341 million project costs, $336.3 million are expenses eligible for federal reimbursement and fall under the 80 percent (the Federal Highway Administration) will pay for, totaling $269.04 million. The State share of eligible costs, which is 20 percent, would be $67.26 million. When the $4.7 million that FHWA determined was not eligible for federal reimbursement is added in, the State share totals $71.96 million. Of that amount, NJ has been reimbursed $50.1 million by a federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts. That leaves $21.86 million for which the State is responsible. However, NJDOT expects additional reimbursement from the CDBG grant but we don’t have a figure at this time,” explains Schapiro.
And while the reconstruction is finally finished, this isn’t the end of the road for the costs associated with this project. Residents say the construction damaged their homes, including cracks in walls and ceilings. At least 36 property owners contacted the New Jersey Department of Transportation with claims related to work on Route 35. The state, however, is referring the residents to the contractor but the contractor’s insurance company has been denying liability.
For taxpayers, the reconstruction of Route 35 has been a rocky road with the cost amounting to highway robbery.