February Starts Slide 7%

At a seasonally adjusted rate of $435.4 billion, new construction starts in February dropped 7% from the previous month, according to McGraw-Hill Construction's latest Dodge starts data. "Diminished activity in January and February indicates that [recent] upward trends remain hesitant," says Robert Murray, MHC's chief economist. On a year-to-date basis, total new starts for the first two months of the year was $62.5 billion, up 5% from the same period a year ago.

Utility Rejects Smart-Grid Costs

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission on March 21 rejected a request by power provider Xcel Energy, Denver, to recoup the final $16.6 million in costs for its troubled SmartGridCity project. SmartGridCity, launched in 35,000 homes in Boulder, Colo., in 2008, was one of the country's first attempts to implement smart-grid energy technology on a broad scale.

Xcel hoped to use new computer and communications technology to save money on residential energy bills, but costs for the pilot project jumped from initial estimates of $15 million to nearly $45 million in two years. The company is already receiving $27.9 million in recovery costs through customer rates. The PUC's denial for the final costs was made "with prejudice," so that Xcel cannot reapply, though the company can ask the PUC to reconsider or sue the commission in district court. Boulder city officials said the smart-grid pilot project was "a failed experiment" that provided consumers with only limited benefits.

Birmingham Airport, Builders Probe Fatal Sign Collapse

Officials of Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport and of the construction team that managed a just-completed $201.6-million upgrade of the Alabama facility now are probing what caused a 300-lb to 400-lb flight display board to fall from a wall onto a visiting family on March 22. The accident killed a 10-year-old boy and injured his two brothers and mother.

The renovated terminal was opened earlier this month, with a new phase of work set to begin shortly. A spokeswoman for Brasfield & Gorrie/BLOC Global Services Group, the project's joint-venture construction manager, confirmed the "ongoing evaluation" but would not comment further on possible causes of the collapse or reveal the companies involved in the probe.

Firm Settles False Claims Allegations for $1.15 Million

Caddell Construction Co., Montgomery, Ala., has agreed to pay $1.15 million to resolve federal civil allegations that it violated the False Claims Act, the Dept. of Justice said on March 25. The government alleged Caddell falsely reported, from 2003 to 2005, to the Army Corps of Engineers that it hired and mentored a Native American-owned firm on two military construction projects. The DOJ said that firm was "a pass-through entity" Caddell used to claim payments. In January, Caddell paid the government $2 million to settle a parallel federal criminal fraud investigation for the same activity. Caddell had done its own investigation and cooperated with DOJ.