Unique Connecticut span was shunned by contractors.
Instead, the letter Q now stands for questions that surround the project, such as, “Where are the contractors?”
“It was a surprise to the department that there were no bids,” says Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the Connecticut Dept. of Transportation. “This has clearly delayed both the start and the completion.”
ConnDot officials are trying to figure out why no bidders showed up and are seeking ways to get the seven-year project back on track, possibly by breaking up the $400-million-plus job into smaller contracts.
After no bidders submitted proposals by the Dec. 20 deadline, ConnDOT staff hunkered down to figure out what went wrong. They had advertised a request for proposals months earlier for the 10-lane structure, which will replace the existing Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge that is part of Interstate 95. The new bridge will have the same name but is also known as the “Q” because it crosses the Quinnipiac River. It is part of a $1.4-billion, 7.2-mi rehabilitation project along I-95 between New Haven and Branford. New York City-based Parsons Brinckerhoff is overseeing the work as project manager.
The project’s anticipated seven-year schedule and uncertainties about material and labor costs almost certainly were issues for contractors, say industry sources. So were steep liquidated damages tied to 28 project milestones.
At least one surety also balked at the project’s length and penalties. In a letter sent to ConnDOT last August, Robert Sutton, assistant vice president of Zurich North America Surety, told ConnDot that “several” of its clients had expressed interest in the “Contract B” project to build the bridge. But several items of “serious concern,” in particular the completion date of Nov. 30, 2014, made the job “an extremely long-term project which in turn creates an unacceptably high project risk profile.” Zurich said it would not consider anything longer than a four- or five-year contract.
The letter also cites inflation, availability of labor and materials, and risk transfer difficulties for contractors, including stiff liquidated damages that could kick in if any one of 28 project milestones is missed. These damages “appear to be cumulative,” Sutton wrote. “Of particular concern is that the phases with milestone dates in 2014 have the potential to create a cumulative impact in excess of $270,000 per day.” A one-month delay could subject the contractor to damages that total “more than $8 million per month,” says Sutton. “That is a very heavy penalty.”
No bids for $400-million new bridge has ConnDOT rethinking contract.
Industry observers speculate that several issues likely contributed to keep bidders away, including the contract’s comprehensive scope. DOT had bid virtually the entire bridge construction effort in the single “Contract B,” and the seven-year timeframe was too long a bet for most contractors, says Lowell Kahn, co-owner of Hartland Building & Restoration Co., East Granby, Conn., a steel contractor that had prepared an estimate for one of the bidders.
“This could easily turn into a 10-year job,” Kahn says. “A contractor would have to take some big risks and make some big assumptions about where labor is going to go, where materials are going to go, where the price of oil is going to go. No one wants to get the biggest job of their life and then have guessed wrong. You could go out of business.”
Kahn says adding to the uncertainty is the possibility of a sharp electrical rate hike that United Illuminating, a New Haven utility, is considering to help pay for system upgrades.
Kahn also says he heard that one potential bidder did not submit a proposal because it knew its number was far higher than the design estimate, making it unlikely to win. But the bigger problem for ConnDOT may lie in a shift in Connecticut’s marketplace, he adds.
“A lot of the big players have just decided not to work here anymore,” Kahn says. “If this had bid 10 to 15 years ago, they would have gotten a lot more bidders. It’s tough on the agency. They put a great show together. The pre-bid meetings showed they spent a lot of time and effort. But the main killer is the duration – contractors having to take that risk.”
The RFP for the bridge, designed by URS Corp. of San Francisco, was issued last May with an original deadline in September. But there were seven addendums to the original documents and an extension of the deadline to Dec. 20. According to ConnDOT, only two bidders had expressed interest in the project, Omaha-based Peter Kiewit Sons’ and a joint venture of O&G Industries, Torrington, Conn.; Tutor-Saliba Corp., Sylmar, Calif.; and Perini Corp., Framingham, Mass. None of the companies returned calls seeking comment.
The bridge’s unusual design doesn’t appear to be a major factor. The unique structural system, which would incorporate elements of segmental girder and cable-stayed designs previously used on bridges in Japan, was chosen because it permits a 500-ft main span with towers as low as 64 ft to avoid interfering with flight paths to nearby Tweed New Haven Regional Airport.
For now, ConnDOT has not indicated when it would readvertise the bid. Everhart says the agency has drafted letters to request feedback on the failed bid process from contractors.
“They want to talk to some contractors to find out what they saw in the bid specifications that they didn’t like or didn’t understand to find out why no bids were received,” he adds.
But that request could prove tricky because of the strict contracting reform measures that the state passed in the wake of a corruption scandal that brought down former Gov. John Rowland in 2004, says Donald Shubert, executive secretary of the Connecticut Road Builders Association.
“It might be real tricky,” he says. “The discussions between the state and potential bidders can be very limited.”
URS has been in contact with the ConnDOT about options to rework the bid, though no decisions have been made, says Stuart Stolfi, the company’s office manager in Rocky Hill, Conn.
ConnDOT may consider breaking up the contract.
Kahn says that while such a change would probably result in the same bridge design, it may require re-phasing and rescheduling of aspects such as temporary on- and off-ramps.
Any new bid also may ultimately involve a reconfiguration of risk, Shubert says.
“Like any other owner, ConnDOT has to weigh how it is apportioning its risk and to what level it is trying to pass risks to the other parties in the contracting process,” he says. “If they balance it right, they should be able to attract bidders.”ids were due last December and a state contract award was supposed to launch construction this spring in New Haven, Conn., on the unusually named Q Bridge, the nation’s first highway bridge using a unique design, an extradosed structural system.