Six years ago, Warsaw set out on a mission to install and replace sidewalks in the heart of town. And although over $1.6 million in federal funds is waiting to pay for the bulk of that project, no ground has been broken.
Warsaw blames VDOT for the lack of progress. The agency is responsible for overseeing the Transportation Alternatives (TAP) grants that will provide the federal money.
But instead of facilitating, VDOT has spent years creating an impasse by “flip-flopping” on whether or not it’ll allow the part of the plan that involves Dominion Energy, explained Warsaw Town Manager Joseph Quesenberry and Jerry Davis, executive director for the Northern Neck Planning District Commission.
VDOT claims that after years of requests Warsaw still has not provided the documentation required under the federal guidelines.
It started with safety
Warsaw wants new sidewalks on both sides of Rt. 360 to create a better walking route from the RCC campus area to the western end of town.
Quesenberry explained that over 20,000 vehicles a day travel that stretch and for pedestrians, it’s unsafe. The existing sidewalks are so narrow pedestrians must move over to avoid being hit, and there are utility poles in the center requiring people with wheelchairs or strollers to go off the sidewalk to get around them.
“People have been struck. So, the safety of the citizens is what motivated this project,” he said.
“This unsafe situation was created by VDOT in the first place,” said Davis. When Rt. 360 was widened, someone decided to pour the sidewalks around the utility poles. Those are VDOT’s sidewalks and their right-of-way. But as we see with other projects, VDOT claims fixing this “is not in the budget” and that “eventually forced the town to deal with it.”
Warsaw wants to handle it using TAP grants, and was approved for one in 2014 and another in 2018.
The root of the problem
TAP grants operate on a 80/20 payment share, making Warsaw responsible for 20 percent of the total project cost.
Both sides agree that in its initial TAP grant application Warsaw outlined plans to have Dominion Energy move the poles that are in the existing sidewalks.
According to the town, Dominion agreed to do the work for free, saving Warsaw hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. And Warsaw wants VDOT to greenlight that work as an in-kind donation, allowing the town to deduct the value of Dominion’s work from its 20 percent share.
VDOT said Dominion’s work can be allowable as an in-kind donation but before it can make a firm determination it needs documentation from Dominion containing specific details about the arrangement and the costs. That includes a breakdown outlining which portions of the work are “eligible project costs,” meaning they can count toward the town’s match, and which are not.
After VDOT reviews that information, it’ll pass its assessment to the Federal Highway Administration, which then has to agree.
“VDOT has consistently requested this donation acknowledgement in writing since 2015, but has yet to receive it,” said Kelly Hannon, communications manager for VDOT Fredericksburg District.
Additionally, VDOT needs documentation from Warsaw showing how it will cover the portion of its share remaining after Dominion’s in-kind donation. The town can do so either with town money or other in-kind donations.
The town hasn’t provided this documentation either, according to Hannon. And VDOT cannot waive any of the federal requirements for this program, she added.
Covering the costs
Warsaw has publicly discussed expectations that Dominion’s work, which is currently estimated at around $305,000, will cover nearly all of its 20% share. But neither VDOT nor the FHA has approved that estimate yet.
Furthermore, according to VDOT, this is a $2.04 million project making Warsaw responsible for $409,259 and Hannon said Warsaw has stated the town doesn’t plan to use any local funds to cover their match.
Quesenberry disputes that. “Of course” the town is willing to invest. “We don’t expect everything for free. We know we have to pay something.”
“We know when we go through the right-of-way phase we’re going to have to buy some of that. But if they allow that [in-kind donation], and its $50,000 or $70,000 to get this done. I don’t see town council saying no. I think they’re absolutely going to go full steam ahead,” he said.
No documentation, no more work
Since the Warsaw staff member who applied for the original TAP grant is no longer working for the town, it’s unclear why little progress was made through 2018 or why VDOT wasn’t given the requested documentation.
But in 2018 Quesenberry was on board and worked on the second TAP application.
That year, the also town contracted VDOT to perform right-of-way services for the project and acquire the necessary easements.
VDOT started this work but once again requested the required documentation. Finally, “in December 2018, VDOT stopped nearly all work to limit any further expense and to avoid obtaining easements from property owners without evidence that local funds were available to match federal funds,” said Hannon.
After that the project stalled again. Davis and Quesenberry say they don’t really know why VDOT scaled back at that time.
Davis acknowledges that “a lot of things didn’t progress.” There’s a recognition that there was a lot of time nothing happened. Why? Nobody can answer that question, he said.
Quesenberry and Davis say the crux of the problem is VDOT’s mixed messaging.
“One day VDOT tells us Dominion’s in-kind donation will be accepted and we’re working to get the documents they ask us for and the next thing you know their mood changes and they tell us it won’t be allowed,” they explained.
For example, VDOT project manager Ana Kapitan sent out an email about the project in August 2019, noting that she discussed the in-kind match with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). She reiterated that the Dominion in-kind donation could be allowed but proper documentation is required.
Kapitan outlined what was needed in that documentation and reminded the town that only the portion of pole relocation deemed as eligible project costs will count toward the match.
Davis said afterward receiving that email, he contacted Dominion explaining what was needed. But it was getting close to the pandemic. So, from March to June 2020, “things got hung up because Dominion was under orders not to make field visits.”
In June 2020, representatives from the town, Dominion, and VDOT met for a field visit. “When we were wrapping things up, Ana Kapitan blurted out, ‘yeah, I don’t know why we’re here. We’ve already determined we’re not counting the cost of relocation as part of the match…’ And I was shocked,” Davis said.
“We’re out there trying to follow the procedure she laid out in an email…She knew what the meeting was about,” said Davis.
And that’s the type of back and forth has been going on for years, he and Quesenberry said.
Kapitan “did not make the statement attributed to her,” according to Hannon. Furthermore, VDOT is prepared to accept the Dominion in-kind donation within the parameters and this project can advance once the necessary documentation is received, she added.
The financial dilemma
Quesenberry and Davis say the town is between a rock and a hard place.
“If we stop now, we owe hundreds of thousands of dollars because we’re told we have to reimburse what’s been spent. If we go further and VDOT doesn’t allow the in-kind donation, then we still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s the thing,” said Quesenberry.
VDOT said it has invested about $100,000 in this project for the preliminary engineering and right-of-way acquisition phases. That includes required environmental documents and project design as well as property and utility appraisals.
And Warsaw has already started tapping the federal government for money. The town has submitted and received reimbursements for three invoices, which were for engineering work, according to Quesenberry.
The town also faces big bills because VDOT is “subsidizing its salaries” off of the back of Warsaw taxpayers, Quesenberry said. When the department attends meetings related to the project, it sends numerous representatives and charges the town per person, per hour and many of the people don’t do anything, he said.
Davis pointed to the meeting this summer. Kapitan was invited “as a courtesy” and she showed up with four other VDOT people who had no reason to be there, he said.
According to VDOT, Warsaw wasn’t charged for those individuals attending that meeting. They came in hopes of “spurring next steps in the project’s right-of-way-phase” and moving the project closer to construction, said Hannon.
Further, since 2015, VDOT’s total staff charges for this project is $34,722. And VDOT is “ready to address specific questions or concerns regarding our work and billing for any invoice,” Hannon added.
If Warsaw is in a position where it can’t fund the 20 percent of the originally planned project, the town has options. It can scale the project back to suit the amount of the in-kind donation. VDOT has also suggested the town do the project in phases, constructing only as much as local funds will allow, said Hannon.
At the October 2020 Warsaw Town Council meeting Mayor Randy Phelps’ patience with VDOT was running short. He told Quesenberry to contact the state legislators and ask that they get involved with handling VDOT.
Quesenberry hasn’t gone that route yet, and although he feels that those in VDOT’s Fredericksburg Division that run the TAP program are fighting against the town, he said no one from the town has attempted to reach out to the FHWA.
Doing so would make matters worse, he and Davis agree.
“We don’t want to be known as the little town that’s creating a problem. We’re almost at the dirt and shovel stage. We just want our sidewalks,” said Quesenberry.
So, he said Warsaw plans to show good faith by following VDOT’s process, and the town is working to finalize the documentation that has been requested and will be sending it to VDOT soon.