From illegal workers hidden at the region’s largest federal project, to the new mayor of Orange County making waves about the proposed Performing Arts Center and the planned Wekiva Parkway projects, to Gov. Rick Scott rejecting $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds, February has been an interesting month for Orlando's construction sector. It was all pretty bad news for a construction industry still in recovery mode.
Illegal Workers: On Feb. 9, the Orlando Police and Fire departments assisted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents in locating six illegal workers found hiding in the ceiling of the future Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center, being built by Brasfield & Gorrie of Lake Mary, Fla. Earlier in the day, ICE agents had assisted Florida state officials in a criminal investigation, looking for counterfeit and fraudulent identification and documents of workers at the site. But they left empty handed.
An hour later, a tip came in, reporting workers had been hidden in a poorly ventilated spot with no access to food or water. Sure enough, after several hours of searching with K9 dogs, a worker on the ground led the officers to the workers, who had been tucked into a 30-ft long by 10-ft wide by 18-inches deep space, and used a forklift to move scaffolding to reach the men and remove them. Police report the men had no way out on their own.
Bad News, Possible Good News for PAC Project: That same day, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs received some disturbing information from the county’s comptroller about funding for the planned Performing Arts Center. Among the findings: The PAC had raised less than $3 million for an operating endowment, despite agreeing to raise $25 million before construction begins. Private fundraising for the capital campaign remains $50 million short of the $130 million required. And the county has concerns about the budget and construction bid processes.
A separate report from the County Administrator’s office raised issues about PAC construction, design and contracting issues and some unusual high-cost elements built into the contacts, such as requiring the owner to pay half the salary of construction manager Balfour Beatty Construction’s senior vice president’s salary; his car allowance of $1,025 per month, plus gas and oil; his lunches with the project team; and his health insurance, at $1,333 per month. The contract also provides a 62.1% mark up for Balfour Beatty’s on-site supervisory personnel. Jacobs will meet with PAC board members on February 24.
None of this sat well with the new county mayor, but nevertheless Mayor Jacobs indicated that she'd be open to a plan to save the project, but with increased oversight. And, in fact, on Feb. 24, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Orange County Mayor Jacobs and Buddy Dyer, mayor of Orlando, had reached an agreement to move the PAC project forward.
Bad News for Wekiva Parkway Project: Mayor Jacobs also voiced concerns about funding of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority’s plans for the Wekiva Parkway, which has a $1.8-billion price tag. Jacobs, who now serves on the expressway authority board, says, “all indications are that even with the recent and planned toll increases, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority cannot fund the entire project, or even the majority of it.” The road will not generate enough toll revenue to qualify for a state Turnpike project, she says. She is urging the expressway authority to seek partners.
High-Speed Rail: The string of bad news for Orlando continued on Feb. 16, when Gov. Rick Scott announced he would reject $2.4 billion in federal funds for a high-speed rail line linking Orlando and Tampa. State lawmakers and members of its Congressional delegation raced to find a way to save the train.
With the community still facing high unemployment as it begins pulling out of the recession-induced doldrums, major public projects such as these would surely provide some boost until the economy picks up again. We'll keep an eye on these and other developments.