Did Virginia’s P3 partner on the Midtown Tunnel project in Hampton Roads have something to hide? Were subcontractors facing retribution for being part of a controversial construction project? And would minority and disadvantaged businesses be shortchanged on the $2.1 billion project?
Nope. Seems the whole thing was a big misunderstanding.
Earlier this month, the Virginian-Pilot newspaper reported that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Elizabeth River Contractors (ERC, a joint venture of Skanska Infrastructure Development and the Macquarie Group of Australia) were resisting the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request for information on subcontractors involved with the public-private venture to construct a new tunnel between Norfolk and Portsmouth, upgrade two existing tunnels, and build a nearby freeway interchange.
The object of the request, according to the newspaper, was to determine how well the project was meeting its requirements to involve certified small, minority-owned, and disadvantaged subcontractors.
But as reported in ENR, the project has sparked widespread opposition over the use of implementation of tolls on the existing Midtown Tunnel, including a lawsuit that will receive its first hearing in state court in early May.
Given the sometimes acrimonious nature of the anti-toll rhetoric, ERC was reportedly concerned that the subs would suffer economically if their involvement was made public. “Trade secrets” were also at issue, argued ERC’s attorney. VDOT apparently agreed that the information should remain confidential.
Now, VDOT has essentially said “oops.” Citing a miscommunication with ERC and its attorney, the agency says the subcontractor information shouldn’t be withheld. A March 28 Virginian-Pilot story lists the firms that ERC and SKW, the company’s design-build arm, used in 2012 and the dollar amount range each was paid.
The story quotes Frank Fabian, VDOT’s Midtown Tunnel project manager, as saying that “I probably should have looked a little closer” at the information request. Adds ERC spokesperson Leila Rice, “We don’t want to give people the impression that we’re not doing something proper with the public dollars.”
Taking VDOT and ERC at their word--and there appears to be no reason no to--the incident is a reminder that miscommunication and misinterpretations are a part of everyday life, in construction and everywhere else. And though P3s have proliferated in recent years, agencies and enterprises are still becoming accustomed to what each participant can and cannot do. Sometimes the effects are minimal and short-lived; in others, they have harmful, expensive, even deadly consequences.
What’s disconcerting, though, is that in an increasingly intense, deadline-driven world with multiple communication channels available to us, there is less and less time to fully consider everything that comes across our real and virtual desks. When something does slip through, we have to backtrack, reassess, correct, admit, and atone. All of that takes time, attention, and resources. Meanwhile, the flow of new, incoming information continues unabated.
ERC’s concern over the potential economic fallout faced by its subs also has merit. Perhaps the ability to compete for future work wasn’t the only risk the Midtown Tunnel’s subs face by being involved with the controversial project.
It doesn’t take much today for a blog, Tweet, or any other electronic message—accurate or otherwise—to go viral, intensifying feelings that may have already reached a fever pitch. Maybe their property and physical well-being of their employees are also at risk.
A spokesman for the American Subcontractors Association knows of no such incidents where subs have been threatened this way. Hopefully, it won’t ever happen. But everyone in the design and construction industry—plus the reporters who cover it—could probably benefit from being a little more thoughtful about their work.
It may take a little more time and a few more resources—blasphemy in these lean, living on the edge times, I know—but there’s a lot to be said for getting it right the first time as well.