Noncompetitive competition for bridge

Woodrow Wilson: Price is too high with lone bidder for span across the Potomac.

January 21, 2002

AS THINGS STAND, Maryland has two choices of construction firms to build a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge: Contractor A or Contractor A.

Not exactly the way capitalism is supposed to work, huh?

The absence of competition drives up prices for consumers who, in this case, are taxpayers.

Only one contractor - a consortium of three contractors, actually - has bid on the major part of the Woodrow Wilson job, one of the nation's biggest bridge-building projects.

The result is a price tag that is so far out of kilter with estimates that state transportation officials must have thought the consortium had mistakenly estimated the cost of building a bridge to the moon.

Engineers had projected the cost of building the superstructure across the Potomac River at $487 million, but the bid was a stratospheric $860 million - 176 percent higher than the engineers' estimate.

Maryland transportation officials offered many excuses for the disparity when testifying before state lawmakers last week.

They speculated that other major construction projects are being launched - including the $1 billion replacement for the San Francisco Bay Bridge - at a time when few contractors are big enough to handle a job of this magnitude.

They insisted that contractors weren't initially repelled by the project labor agreements that Gov. Parris N. Glendening foolishly sought to include for the project before being forced to abandon the idea. But that's hard to believe.

Whatever the reason, the price is too high.

The federal government has committed $1.58 billion to the $2.4 billion replacement project, with Maryland and Virginia committed to foot the remainder, except for $15 million that the District of Columbia is pitching in.

Maryland and its partners don't have to swallow the contractor's deal, although it's the only one on the table. They could negotiate a lower price with the consortium (Kiewit Construction Co, Tidewater Construction Corp. and Clark Construction Group). They could rebid the project. Or they could redesign a more economical Potomac crossing.

Beyond that, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government should take a closer look at why the project attracted only one bidder and why the bid was so high.

State and federal taxpayers deserve better answers and more choices than they're getting.

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