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I-275 plan hits $100M bump

Prices for a new Tampa stretch are 40 percent higher than expected, the latest transportation sticker shock. Oil prices are blamed.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published June 28, 2006


TAMPA - State transportation officials say the rising cost of oil has pushed bids for a portion of Interstate 275 construction to $100-million more than engineers' estimates.

"We've had problems with materials," said Marian Scorza, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation. "The price of materials, the cost of asphalt, that's the reason why the bids are going up."

The DOT had budgeted $250-million to rebuild and widen I-275 from the Howard Frankland Bridge to Himes Avenue, near downtown Tampa. But the two bids they received came in at more than $350-million, or 40 percent higher than expected.

"That's a shocker," said Ron Rotella, executive director of the Westshore Alliance business group. "Hopefully the department can come to grips with the construction costs and get the improvement done. You wonder if the project would proceed if those bids are the best they can do."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Thomas Scott, who sits on several transportation boards, said the same problem has plagued Tampa's N 40th Street project, bids for which came in at $4-million more than the city's highest estimate.

"I guess the state and county governments will have to reassess the whole issue," Scott said. "This is a major hit in terms of transportation given the fact of the rising costs. It's unbelievable."

Scorza said the DOT has just started to think about options.

"We're reviewing the bids, so we don't really have alternatives being considered yet," she said.

Construction plans call for at least four traveling lanes in each direction. The new interstate would have up to 64 feet of median between the northbound and southbound lanes, which means the highway will expand one to two blocks closer to adjacent neighborhoods.

Early renderings of the project showed special features at each exit that would symbolize the surrounding community. A design for the Dale Mabry Highway exit, for example, showed a 25-foot-tall statue of a football player atop a giant pedestal.

To compensate for the inflated costs, Scorza said the DOT may consider doing the project in smaller segments.

"But right now it's too early to say," she said.

Asphalt is a tarlike substance used in road paving that is made from petroleum. The surge in oil prices has pushed fuel prices up 20 percent in the past year and asphalt by a comparable amount, according to economists.

The cost of road construction rose 18 percent in the United States last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. It shot up 45 percent in Florida.

The price of asphalt had remained flat for so long that transportation officials haven't had to worry about its cost, said Margaret Cervarich, spokeswoman for the National Asphalt Pavement Association. That all changed when the price of crude oil began to rise, she said.

"The price of everything goes up with the price of oil," Cervarich said. "Even the price of grapes at the grocery store. Construction materials are a lot heavier than a bunch of grapes."

The National Asphalt Pavement Association plans to work with state departments of transportation to find ways to cut costs because there are few alternatives to building roadways with asphalt, Cervarich said.

"Unless you're going to start building streets out of bricks again, which I don't think you're going to do," she said.

The association helps asphalt companies learn the latest technology and gain market insight.

One way to cut costs is to recycle the asphalt taken off the road before it's resurfaced. A roadway is generally made from 5 percent asphalt and 95 percent rocks and gravel. Cervarich also said that using larger rocks to cover the road surface would mean using less asphalt.

"There's a lot of confusion right now in the markets," Cervarich said. "Long term, we still need good roads, and adjustments are going to need to be made."

It's a pinch being felt by Hillsborough County transportation officials, as well.

A Bruce B. Downs project estimated last year at $173-million is up to $211-million. A future four-lane connector between Sheldon Road and Linebaugh Avenue has ballooned to $136-million from $20-million.

In south Hillsborough, officials had hoped to six-lane a 2.9-mile stretch of Big Bend Road for $27-million. The estimate now stands at $111-million.

Scorza said the rising price of materials for road construction likely will affect other planned DOT projects.

The construction along I-275 from the Howard Frankland Bridge to Himes is part of a project that will eventually stretch north to the Hillsborough River. Construction for the entire project was initially scheduled to begin in 2007 and end in 2013.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 2, 2006, 08:21:35]


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