After putting a hold for months on some highway contracts because of a budget squeeze, the Virginia Dept. of Transportation is gradually unfreezing much of that work.

VDOT had frozen about 120 contracts totaling $255 million that were awarded between last October and January, but not yet executed. The decisions to put the work on hold were made starting late last year. "Because of budget considerations and also the downturn in the economy, VDOT knew that we needed to prepare for this," says Tamara Neale, a department spokesperson.

On March 7, VDOT released one big pending project, signing a contract with Tidewater Skanska Inc. for a $136-million interchange in Portsmouth. That contract was awarded last November, but the department says that because of the soft economy, it was short $60 million of the amount it needed to execute the job. Construction now is to begin in early April and is scheduled to be finished in late 2004.

VDOT says that all the other projects that were on hold will begin work by May.

Faced with a $143-million budget shortfall, the department also asked contractors to halt work on its projects until at least April to help it conserve cash. About 40 firms agreed to the temporary halt, which applied to mostly secondary road contracts of less than $1 million. Those projects now are slated to get under way in April, VDOT says.

Richard D. Daugherity III, executive vice president of the Virginia Road & Transportation Builders Association, says his group encouraged members to volunteer to shut down temporarily, postpone work or delay payments to help VDOT, "in hopes that it wouldn't go much beyond April That has proven, I think, to be successful."

He also says it appears that highway bid prices have fallen considerably since VDOT's budget woes emerged. Some firms, he adds are bidding below cost to keep their employees working.

With VDOT's dollars tight, Daugherity thinks there could be friction over financial issues between contractors and owners on job sites if contract add-ons are requested.

The road builders group is watching the situation closely, Daugherity says, but adds, "We are encouraged that some of the dire straits that we were in earlier seem to have thawed." He says, "We are very hopeful that we are going to be able to resume a reasonable. Schedule to keep contractors and engineers working in the upcoming months."

The state's largest projects, including the Woodrow Wilson bridge across the Potomac River and the Springfield interchange at the Capital Beltway haven't been affected by the freeze.