California contractors are dubbing 2008 as “the year of the disappearing project backlog.” Now that it is drawing to a close, they are hoping for a thriving 2009 with the passage of Prop. 1B, an infrastructure-heavy stimulus package and other measures that promise more work. But they say California needs to catch up to other states in embracing alternative project-delivery methods.


More than a dozen Bay Area contractor representatives met in November at the University of California, Berkeley, to discuss hopes and apprehensions for the new year, in a roundtable put together by geotechnical consultant Richard Short. They see great opportunities, particularly in the transit and energy sectors, but say agencies like the California Dept. of Transportation need to focus less on rigid contract specifications and more on flexibility and communication.

Gladys Cornell, principal with AIM Consulting, a Folsom-based communications consultant, is optimistic about high-speed rail legislation. “In talking to people who voted yes or no, most were positive about the concept, but some felt it was not good timing,” she says. “You’ve got to get past the wait for ‘good timing.’”

George Furnanz, vice president of Stacy and Witbeck, Alameda, notes that the firm has done transit work in six states, but very little in California. “Will it change? We know it will,” he says. “But the legislation has to get it right. They’ve got to look at new methods like CM at- Risk or design-build.”

Other states’ agencies seem to emphasize more partnership and less contention than Caltrans, says Don Dolly, president of Foundation Pile Driving, Oakley. “The intent is to ensure no unknowns, but by writing everything into the specs, the results are contention and extra claims,” he says. “Tell the contractor what you want—not that he has to include every possible eventuality.”

Caltrans did win some kudos. Short said the agency “has programs to consider alternative foundation types and include them in specs.” Although open to hearing about new methods, the agency doesn’t move quickly on implementing them. “It’s the comfort level,” said Andrew Ghofrani, design-build manager for Granite Construction Co., Watsonville. “And legislatively, Caltrans’ hands are tied. If you have a good idea, it’s best to do it while the design is fluid, as in a design-build process.”

While port container and aviation work aren’t seen as growth markets, “energy is off the charts for the next two years,” said Kris Johnson, regional manager for Kleinfelder West Inc., Pleasanton. “We’re turning away design work...and levee work in Sacramento will bust loose in the next few years,” he said.

Renewed industry efforts also are needed in workforce development. Arpad Horvath, a Berkeley professor, notes that the societal focus on sustainability is bringing more engineering students back to school. “Contractors have to do their own training and work with unions,” says John Jansen, senior vice president for Kiewit Corp.’s Concord office. “The industry has to come together.”