Fiasco

 

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The FBI and Federal Highway Administration are investigating that question. Meanwhile, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has named L.G. DeFelice Inc., a North Haven firm hired to rebuild the section of highway, the Maguire Group Inc., of New Britain, that was to oversee and inspect DeFelice's work, and more than a dozen individuals from both companies, in a civil lawsuit. The defendants, in turn, have pulled the project's design firm of Close, Jensen and Miller P.C., of Wethersfield, into the litigation.

ConnDOT, citing ongoing investigations, has refused to allow interviews of management regarding specific details of the I-84 project or the policies and practices of highway construction in general. Alice Sexton, an attorney in ConnDOT's office of legal services, puts it this way: "The Department of Transportation is not under any legal obligation to speak with the press regarding this or any other matter." Yet public testimony, the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with various ConnDOT rank-and-file provide a window into what transpired.

In some ways, the story began earlier in the decade, when layoffs and early-retirement buyouts spearheaded by the Rowland administration reduced ConnDOT's staff by about 900 employees. Many of these people were engineers and administrators. Rowland's was a political decision designed to save tax dollars. Whether any savings have actually been achieved as a result of this cost cutting is another matter, but one thing is certain: ConnDOT has ever since outsourced many of its jobs to private firms-and in some cases to firms that appear to have cultivated their relationship with the government through political contributions.

Work on the 3.4-mile stretch of I-84 began with an outside consultant to design the project, another to build it, another to oversee that consultant, and one overextended state highway engineer to try to keep an eye on everyone. Things got under way at the construction site in October 2002 without a formal ConnDOT review of the design, the construction plans or the contracts. The project was to be completed by early fall of 2005 at a total cost for design, construction and oversight of just under $60 million. Almost immediately, there were problems.

Close, Jensen and Miller (CJM), of Wethersfield, is a major recipient of Connecticut's outsourced transportation projects. CJM President John Miller is a former Republican National Committeeman who has generously supported various political campaigns in the state-including those of Govs. Rowland and Rell. According to a forensic report prepared by the auditing firm of Knowles/Hill International, CJM's design for I-84 was seriously flawed. For example, it called for the removal of a 6-inch layer of asphalt when the actual layer in many sections was as much as 21 inches thick. In addition, CJM engineers significantly underestimated the amount of rock and debris that would need removing.

These mistakes resulted right away in a 74-day extension to DeFelice's contract and an increase of $13.5 million to the project's cost. But that was just the beginning.

Most work was planned to be done at night. Consequently, DeFelice asked ConnDOT to purchase-through DeFelice-a $2.5 million "moveable barrier" system so construction crews could widen their work zones after 5 p.m. and then narrow them again at daybreak when traffic increased. Soon, however, DeFelice discovered that the construction contracts-written by CJM-didn't actually specify how much, if any, work had to be done at night. The construction firm used this opening to ask to do more of its work during daylight hours-a request that ConnDOT management approved. Now, in addition to being stuck with a paid-for but unnecessary barrier system, ConnDOT's costs for daytime traffic control soon soared by 1,600 percent to $3.2 million.

Yet even then, ConnDOT's season of trouble was just getting under way.

Fiasco

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