The bad economy has proven to be good for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which saved enough money on major projects to allow it to start work on other plans that wouldn't have started for another two years.
State Department of Transportation officials said they've also benefited from competitive lower bids, which permitted them to plow the savings into a $1 billion capital program instead of a $700 million one for fiscal year 2013.
Money saved on the big work, such as the widening of the New Jersey Turnpike between Exits 6 and 9, has allowed officials to accelerate the other projects, said Richard Razcynski, chief engineer of the Turnpike Authority.
"The more money saved on bids, the more construction we can put on the street," Razcynski told the (http://on.app.com/Rub3eC ) Asbury Park Press. "The Great Egg (Harbor) Bridge (replacement) and the second phase of the (Garden State) Parkway widening weren't in our original (capital) program."
Driving those lower bids is serious competition between contractors for major projects. Bid prices for construction generally have come in under engineers' estimates.
A contract awarded last month to rebuild Exit 9 between the Turnpike and Route 18 in East Brunswick was awarded to the lowest bidder of 12 companies vying for the work — $27.68 million, which was lower than the $29.1 million engineers estimated for that work. Five companies came in with bids lower than the engineers' estimate.
"It's definitely competitive. Contractors in New Jersey have no work," Razcynski said. "We come in with projects, and we get nine to 15 bidders on every contract."
State DOT officials also said they've benefited through bid prices that came in below the engineers' estimate for several years.
"We've come in below estimate for the last few years, and we're seeing the benefit in this year's capital program," said DOT spokesman Joseph Dee. "All those savings are going into the capital program."
Through the savings, the DOT has a $1 billion capital program in fiscal year 2013, instead of a $700 million program for major projects, he said.
"We have more projects getting under way than normal," he said, noting the current plan includes some projects which would have waited until 2014 or 2015. "We keep making adjustments."
Some of those projects range from paving work to going to bid on massive work such as the $170 million direct-connection project to rebuild a safer interchange between Interstates 295, 76 and Route 42, which is being advertised now, and rebuilding the Route 72 Manahawkin bridge to Long Beach Island. The first of four contracts will be bid on in the spring, Dee said.
Last year, a construction industry trade group held a dinner honoring the Authority for "saving" the state's construction industry through its $7 billion capital program, which was funded by the 2008 and 2012 toll increases.
The lower bid prices also have allowed the authority to gain ground and start projects that hadn't been anticipated to begin until the next major capital program.
Toll road drivers also will see the benefit in newly constructed sections of highway that will open earlier than scheduled.
"The Turnpike widening has been heavily accelerated. There are sections of that that are completed," Razcynski said. "We opened a third lane northbound from Exit 8A to 9 (on the Turnpike)."
By the end of the year, authority officials expect to open the reconstructed Exit 8A interchange, he said.
Widening of the Garden State Parkway between Exits 63 and 80 was completed a month ahead of schedule and opened before a promised May 30, 2011, date.
That work also came in under estimates, saving a total of $15.9 million on two contracts awarded in 2009 to widen two sections of the Parkway in Ocean County. That came in $30.1 million lower than engineers' estimates.
Projects done by the authority, which also runs the Parkway, also have benefited from lower prices for commodities such as steel, Razcynski said.
But the ride may be coming to an end.
"They're now coming in closer to estimate," he said. "We had a couple of good years being pleased by what it ended up costing as opposed to the initial estimates."