In 2012, Beaufort County embarked on a $15 million, voter-approved project to widen S.C. 170 to four lanes in greater Bluffton.
But one big mistake was made at the onset.
Because S.C. 170 is a state road, improvements needed to meet state standards. Instead, a confused subcontractor working for the project’s engineering firm designed the project only to meet county standards.
County and state engineers did not realize the mistake until months into the project, forcing a massive redesign after work on the main artery that connects Beaufort to Bluffton was already underway.
It was the first of a series of costly mistakes and unanticipated delays that ultimately led to the construction wrapping up 16 months behind its original completion date and almost $1.7 million over its original price.
The S.C. 170 missteps is proof of a pattern that has come to characterize major infrastructure projects undertaken by the county, according to some of the county’s current and former leaders.
Delays, cost overruns and construction fights have plagued the expansion of the J.E. McTeer Bridge, the soon-to-begin Boundary Street
construction, the frontage road near Berkeley Hall and the still-pending improvements at the entrance to Windmill Harbour on Hilton Head Island. Now the Bluffton Parkway flyover project is facing its own delays.
Beaufort County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch puts the blame on county administration — engineering director Rob McFee, deputy administrator Josh Gruber and county administrator Gary Kubic
“You thought this was good planning? You thought this was good traffic engineering?” Bensch said. “I know these (county) guys have degrees and they’re experts in this, but some of these things in the private sector wouldn’t be up for debate. They’d be a joke.”
County council member Rick Caporale agrees. He and Bensch say they have conducted a review of the S.C. 170 project and talked at length with the construction company, Cleland Site Prep, that was hired by the county to do the work.
“The picture that emerged was a massive, massive lack of communication that suggested some kind of weird confusion,” Caporale said. “It just seemed to me that nobody was up to the challenge on the S.C. 170 job. And I say that mostly about the county and the county’s (hired inspectors.)”
Meanwhile, county administrators have pointed the finger at Cleland Site Prep and the engineering firm, Thomas and Hutton, for the delays. The two firms have pointed their fingers back at the county.
For months, the county and the two firms have negotiated behind closed doors on just who is responsible for which delays, with the county demanding $2.8 million back from the contractors.
A settlement was finally signed Nov. 12:
• Cleland Site Prep agreed to let the county keep $452,000 of the $1.52 million the county withheld from the company since it was fired from the job this summer. The remainder will be paid to Cleland for the work completed.
• The county has rescinded its termination of Cleland, restoring the contractor’s standing with its bonding company. In exchange, Cleland agreed not to pursue any action against the county for erroneous project designs and delays.
• Formal settlements also are being negotiated with Thomas and Hutton, as well as inspectors hired to help manage the project. But they are not yet complete, said county administrator Gary Kubic.
Kubic and other county administrators admit the projects had hiccups. But they contend that delays and changes are typical of projects the scale and cost of the S.C. 170 improvements.
In fact, only 42 percent of state-managed roads projects where completed on time between May 2014 and May 2015, according to a S.C. Department of Transportation presentation. Only
19 percent of those projects during that time were completed within their original contract value.
Including the county’s effort to purchase right of ways for the expanded highway, the S.C. 170 project — despite the construction overruns — actually comes in almost $1 million under its total
$26 million budget, Kubic noted.
“What should be the reasonable expectations for how those projects should be carried out?” Gruber said. “Part of it may be inherent in the type of projects themselves — to some extent this is just what happens. They’re extremely large, incredibly complicated projects. If those conclusions were easily drawn, we’d be doing stuff differently.”
PROBLEMS FROM THE BEGINNING
Efforts to widen S.C. 170 to four lanes between S.C. 46 and U.S. 278 began 10 years ago as development began to boom in the area.
In 2006, voters approved a measure to raise about
$152 million by increasing the local sales tax by one percent for a series of 10 highway and infrastructure projects. The total cost of the improvements would be around
$300 million, to be supplemented by development impact fees and state and federal grants.
But the economic downturn threw a wrench into the plans for all of the projects, decimating expected impact fees and leading the county to borrow more money from the State Infrastructure Bank.
It wouldn’t be until the summer of 2012 that the county finally bid the S.C. 170 project and hired Okatie-based Cleland Site Prep on a contract for just under $15 million for the construction, according to county records.
Cleland and the county’s chosen engineering firm, Thomas and Hutton, of Savannah, were long-time county partners, with long track records on public stormwater reviews, traffic engineering and construction projects — most without blemish, county administrators said.
But it wouldn’t take long for the problems to begin with the S.C. 170 project.
A required state permit had to be applied for twice after state environmental officials asked Thomas and Hutton for additional information and changed state forms, leading to a 91-day delay.
Late out of the gate, Cleland leaders began to raise questions about whether or not Thomas and Hutton’s designs actually met state asphalt standards — which are set through a complicated calculation that measures the strength of the materials being used and sets a minimum threshold.
In May 2013, Thomas and Hutton admitted the error. The road designs needed major revisions to account for the state standards and still remain within budget, according to county records of the weekly discussions held over those months.
Behind the scenes, Thomas and Hutton this fall blamed the error on a subcontractor that helped design the road’s specifications, confused about whether to meet county or state standards, Gruber said of the settlement negotiations.
Thomas and Hutton refused to comment for this story.
“It’s not so simple as a three-inch line on a blueprint instead of a two-inch line. It’s a mathematical calculation,” Gruber said. “You can’t just look at the plans and see it’s wrong. You’d have to recalculate all of the specs.
“It went through us and DOT,” he continued. “It had several sets of eyes on it before somebody realized (the error).”
Over the summer in 2013, the teams of engineers would go back and forth on the calculations, eventually adding one additional inch of asphalt to the design. The addition would cost an extra $732,000, according to county documents.
DESIGN PROBLEMS EMERGE
Other problems also arose in 2013 when Cleland leaders threw up several red flags that the design revisions would leave them unable to perform some of the work in the order in which it needed to be completed. Cleland also pointed to delays in utility relocation that slowed construction progress.
“The plans issued as part of the contract documents provided a Staging Plan which dictates the order of construction,” Cleland wrote to county officials in September. “These delays impacted the completion of Stage 1 which impacted the start dates for Stages 2 thru (sic) 4.”
But county and Thomas and Hutton officials countered that Cleland could have performed an array of preliminary clearing and grubbing work while the revisions were crafted and utilities moved.
It would not be until April 2014 — just weeks before the project’s original anticipated completion date — that County Council formally approved a slew of change orders for the improvements, totaling $1.2 million in additional costs. Those changes included $732,000 for the additional inch of asphalt to meet state standards, according to county records.
“I was upset,” said Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart, who represents the Sun City Hilton Head area. “I said, ‘Look, is this it? Are you going to be done? You haven’t been doing anything out there.’ They said, ‘Absolutely. We’re going to start tomorrow. We’re going to get this job done.’ Obviously that didn’t happen.”
To help keep the project on budget, county leaders abandoned their original stormwater plan for the flood-prone area along S.C. 170. They chose not to relocate a water and sewer line. And instead of laying underground pipe, they chose to dig ditches along the highway, according to McFee and project documents.
While Gruber and county stormwater manager Eric Larson say the ditches will convey the same amount of water away from the area as pipes would have, others say the improvements are inadequate to handle the future stormwater needs of the fast growing section of Bluffton.
Councilwoman Bensch and developer Tom Zinn argue the newly expanded highway is already adding to existing stormwater problems on Zinn’s property at Bluffton Parkway and S.C. 170, where a new Walmart Neighborhood Market is planned.
“We continue to have standing water in pockets, swales and large areas virtually everywhere along S.C. 170 and onto our property, including our uplands, and several of our trees are already dying,” Zinn wrote to county leaders in September. “This is creating a very, very unsafe condition for people driving on S.C. 170.”
Go deeper, read the documents:
A BUMPY ROAD
As the widening project missed deadline after deadline last year, it became clear that the road work done to date was not up to snuff.
For months, drivers traveled on the base layer of asphalt Cleland had installed — a common construction practice which is safe for a time. But the road became marked with potholes and raveling, according to project plans and complains from commuteres.
How that damage came to be became one of the project’s biggest points of contention.
Cleland argued the problems stemmed from bad designs, while the county said the base layer of asphalt failed because it was exposed to traffic and weather for too long.
From January to the end of May 2015, inspectors noted the damage and officials from all parties involved spent months debating the cause and solution of the problem, according to project documents.
In the ensuing weeks, the sides went back and forth about costs for additional asphalt needed to fix the problems while actual work on the site ground to a halt.
On June 16, just as an $864,000 price was agreed to, the county fired Cleland from the project, setting into motion major penalties for Cleland with its insurance company and the delay of other state road projects to ensure the completion of S.C. 170.
“Ten to 12 months of the holdup on the job are directly and undisputedly county issues,” Cleland Site Prep President Avery Cleland told The Island Packet after the company was fired in June. “All of which they knew at bid time, and all of which (we as) the contractor did not know.”
Repeated attempts to reach Cleland over the past month were unsuccessful.
The project went on to substantial completion by the end of July while setting off a battle between furious county administrators and stubborn Cleland officials who insisted on passing the blame to each other.
In September, the county issued a demand letter to Cleland and Thomas and Hutton for $2.8 million to recoup the costs of the delays and additional asphalt and time spent working. The sum includes a $540,000 penalty for the delay past Nov. 2014.
Cleland has argued that he was not given the appropriate deadline extensions given delays in the drainage and pavement redesigns — delays the company contends held construction back by 486 calendar days, according to Cleland’s settlement rebuttal.
Earlier this month, the county and Cleland settled their fight without a court battle.
“Did we have frustrations? Did we pull our hair out? Absolutely,” Gruber said earlier this month. “It sucks, but liquidated damages makes up for not being able to use the road. We can’t go back in time and open it earlier.”
With the road finished and the fight over, Councilman Stewart is just happy he’s only hearing complaints about the speed limit in the area instead of more construction woes, he said with a laugh last week.
“The road is functioning now, and I think people are happy with the final product,” Stewart said. “But it was miserable. I can’t believe how long it took. I can’t believe all the changes. It was disgusting. But now that it’s over, put it behind you, get on, move on with life. There are other challenges out there now.”
- Work to finally complete SC 170 begins Monday, July 5, 2015
- Officials promise to finish SC 170 project this summer, despite county vs. Cleland fight, June 17, 2015
- County fires Cleland Site Prep from long-delayed SC 170 project, June 16, 2015
- Recent rains lead to flooding on newly widened SC 170, June 3, 2015
- SC 170 project limps past another deadline; June completion expected, April 24, 2015