State auditors said the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority could have saved more than $11 million on three major station renovation projects if the transit agency had crafted more thorough designs and sought community opinions earlier in the planning process.
The report by the office of the state auditor, released Monday, said that last-minute changes in the projects for Kenmore, Maverick, and Ashmont stations — changes such as extra stairways, larger elevators, and a new roof deck — cost much more than if they had been included in the initial plans.
The report gives a clear picture of how state construction costs can balloon beyond initial estimates, providing a list of “unnecessary change orders due to inadequate planning and design errors.”
But T officials said the agency’s planning processes have changed in the years since those projects began, pointing to more transparency and the significant role now given to community meetings.
The officials also said the transit agency faces judgment calls: Push through a rough draft of a design to lock in cheaper prices or wait for the project’s design to be final, risking the evaporation of allocated state or federal funds?
“There is no perfect timing,,” T officials said in their response to the report. “Developers are often forced to move quickly to capitalize on a funding opportunity, and it is not uncommon for the MBTA to absorb costs during construction to facilitate city and regional economic development.”
The three station renovations cost a total of $146.9 million.
At Ashmont Station, first redesigned in 2002, the T originally planned for a bare-bones renovation that would have made the decrepit facility more presentable. But community members rallied for a more extensive reconstruction that would put it on a par with new stations elsewhere along the Red Line. Design and construction work had to be scratched and performed a second time, at more than $2.2 million in additional costs.
“By not adequately engaging the community,” the report said, “the MBTA incurred additional design costs when the work completed to date was discarded and a new conceptual station design was commissioned.”
The report also focused on change orders during construction. Though original contracts are subject to competitive bids, a process that ensures the government gets the best price, change orders are generally more expensive, because construction firms can charge higher prices to accommodate the new demands.
For renovations at Kenmore, Maverick, and Ashmont, auditors determined that 72 to 98 percent of the projects’ change orders could have been avoided if the designs had been better planned and monitored by the MBTA.
Many of those changes could have been anticipated, auditors argued: In one instance, designers realized they would need to add an extra set of stairs at Kenmore to accommodate crowds during Red Sox season.
At Maverick Station, the T had to belatedly modify two elevators to better accommodate disabled people, part of a lawsuit settlement with a disability advocacy group.
At Ashmont, plans for a roof deck were cut due to a limited budget; later, MBTA officials realized that other parts of the project would not be possible without the roof deck, so it was added back at a higher price.
“In our opinion, the MBTA should have determined whether it was feasible to remove this aspect of the project before awarding this contract,” the report said. But T officials who responded to the report argued that changes are a natural part of large-scale construction projects.
“These are not errors; they are a normal occurrence in construction associated with retrofitting the oldest rail system in the country,” T officials wrote. “In some cases, judgment calls were made to proceed without all the elements of a completed design . . . understanding that the overall cost would be lower by proceeding than it would be to wait.”
The officials argued that the agency has improved its process for engaging members of the community and incorporating a wider array of government agencies to help identify potential snags in design.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, agreed that the T’s process for including community members in the planning process has improved significantly. Still, he said, the T must seek ways to do even better.
“You end up with big savings when you get that kind of consensus up front,” Regan said. “Communities really need to be heard on those kinds of issues because of the widespread effect these projects have on neighborhoods. Neighbors don’t just go way. Their concerns have to be addressed.”Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.