Big bump in I-5 interchange cost

The south Medford interchange, the largest road construction project in Jackson County since Interstate 5 was built, costs $20 million more than previously reported, a disparity that has caught local officials by surprise.

"My jaw dropped," Commissioner Dave Gilmour said. "That is a lot of money."

On its Web site and in other discussions, the Oregon Department of Transportation has said the project costs about $70 million — but that number is three years out of date.

"From the beginning, we should have gone back and revisited that number," ODOT spokesman Gary Leaming said. "It should have been updated to reflect ongoing material costs and change orders and the scope of the project."

The actual cost is $91 million, according to the latest ODOT numbers, which includes $75 million for the interchange, $12 million for two bridges over Bear Creek on the interstate, $3.2 million for reconstruction of the freeway and $489,000 for work on the Greenway.

The extra projects, which were bundled in with the south Medford interchange project, together amount to $15.7 million. Most of the money to pay for them came from a state bridge renovation fund and interstate maintenance dollars.

All these projects have been referred to by ODOT as being part of the south Medford interchange project, even though they were paid out of other pots of money.

"In our conversations we kind of lumped everything together," Leaming said.

In addition, there have been increased fuel, asphalt and material costs and change orders.

The largest chunk of money for the interchange went to contractor Wildish Standard Paving of Eugene, which was awarded the bid of $59.6 million, $45 million of which was specifically for the interchange. When Wildish got the bid in 2006, it was also going to build a portion of the Bear Creek Greenway path, rebuild two bridges over Bear Creek and rebuild the Barnett Road bridge over Bear Creek.

Since then, material cost increases and change orders put the total construction amount at $71 million, which also includes the reconstruction of the lanes on I-5 from the interchange to the viaduct. Another $20 million purchased land for right of way.

Estimates for the south Medford interchange went up and down during the design phase. At one point, ODOT thought the project would cost $83 million in 2005, but it was later revised down to $70 million. About five years before the project started, ODOT estimated the interchange would cost about $50 million.

When cost projections escalated in 2006, Gilmour and other local officials objected to ODOT using about $13 million for the interchange from an account that had been earmarked for the Highway 62 bypass, which is now a front-burner project.

ODOT has been asking the county's support to build the bypass, but commissioners haven't embraced it yet.

Gilmour said the interchange is costing so much more than original estimates it makes him wary of endorsing the bypass.

"This is far and above what you'd expect from cost overruns," he said.

He said borrowing money from the bypass set a bad precedent that could harm future road projects, particularly if costs escalate.

Leaming said confusion over estimates for the south Medford interchange project has taught ODOT to be more conservative.

"It shows that the department needs to really sharpen its pencil and factor these costs out," he said.

Medford Mayor Gary Wheeler, whose city contributed $15 million toward the interchange, said he didn't know the cost had jumped.

"I'm not familiar with that kind of cost level," he said. "I haven't heard that figure."

Ernie Garb, a Medford resident who was heavily involved in transportation planning when the south Medford project was proposed, said he remembers when cost projections were $35 million, reported in 2001.

He said he was dubious about the estimates ODOT provided back then and suspected the cost of the project would get out of control. He said he's not so much surprised at how much the project is now costing, but angry.

"For me, that is outlandish," he said. "The original cost projections weren't even close to the target."

If people knew the south Medford interchange would be close to $100 million, Garb said the opposition would have been formidable.

Garb said that with the interchange almost completed, he still doesn't understand the logic of building it in the first place.

"This history of it is really a rotten history," Garb said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

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