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North 5 Freeway Widening Project Cost Overrun Is Even More Than Metro Reported

Crane works a wide ditch

Remember that under-construction Burbank-area 5 Freeway project that was years late and millions over budget? In mid-September, Streetsblog L.A. reported that Metro and Caltrans' $1.3 billion 12-mile I-5 North Corridor Improvements project was five years late and $50 million over budget. Turns out that the $50 million overrun Metro reported in early September was lower than the cost overrun figure already requested by Caltrans in a May 2020 letter obtained by Streetsblog L.A.

The May letter, from Caltrans District 7 Director John Bulinski to Metro CEO Phil Washington, requests that Metro provide $73.2 million for the I-5 cost increases:

Caltrans has been searching for additional State funds to contribute toward the increased [I-5 North] project costs... [D]ue to the project funding complexities and California Transportation Commission (CTC) guidelines, the only State funds that will be available to tap into is Regional Improvement Program (RIP). The increase will need to be covered using Local Measure funds and/or County share of RIP funds, and both would require Metro’s approval. The RIP funds would be a Supplemental Fund Request that would also require CTC approval.

We are requesting Metro to provide additional funds for the anticipated cost increase for the I-5 Segment 3 Empire Interchange Project to complete construction and close out, as well as the City of Burbank’s unmet needs. The City of Burbank submitted a cost estimate for their unmet needs at $15.3 million, which will not be completed as part of this project or by Caltrans. The total request is $73.2 million including City of Burbank’s unmet needs.

Caltrans $73.2 million request consists of $57.9 million for Caltrans to pay for its construction cost overruns, plus $15.3 million for Burbank. City of Burbank Assistant Community Development Director David Kriske explained that Burbank's "unmet needs" include funding for: repairing construction damage to city streets/sidewalks/gutters, clean-up of unsightly conditions: railroad ballast/weeds/dirt/debris, landscaping, and project elements not included in the original design - including some sidewalks and on-ramp modifications to protect local streets from drivers speeding to get to the freeway.

Some Streetsblog readers will recall Metro CEO Phil Washington's July response to Caltrans:

Our primary state funding source, the Los Angeles County share of Regional Improvement Program (RIP) funds, has been completely allocated to other project over the next five years, and is not available to support the I-5 cost increase. [...]

The funding agreement for this project indicates that Metro does not have financial responsibility for cost overruns on this project.

Several Metro boardmembers, prominently L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, have expressed similar 'we're not going to pay for this' sentiments.

In 2013, Caltrans anticipated that the 5 Freeway North project was due to finish in 2017. Construction is now expected to finish in 2022, so that $73 million cost overrun figure could continue to balloon. By the time this "nightmare" (L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger's description of the project) is over, it wouldn't be a surprise for this overrun to exceed $100 million. During the COVID-19 pandemic recession, funding is tight at city, county, and state levels. Where will these tens of millions of dollars come from?

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