Officials rethink bidding on Wilson bridge project

Lawmaker says probe under way into sole contract

March 02, 2002|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

A key state legislator said yesterday that state and federal authorities are investigating the $860 million bid that a trio of construction firms joined to submit in December for replacing the bulk of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

The bid, the only one submitted, was 72 percent higher than the $500 million that engineers estimated the work would cost, and it has been rejected by state transportation officials, who briefed legislators yesterday on their options in getting the delayed project under way.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, said that he spoke with Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. yesterday morning and that Curran told him the state is investigating how the lone bid came about and "why it was so inflated."

Curran's office acknowledged the conversation yesterday but would not confirm that an investigation is under way.

In evaluating state contracts, the office typically looks for evidence of fraud, which might include material misrepresentations in the bid or bid-rigging, which carries civil and criminal penalties, said Ellen S. Cooper, chief of the attorney general's antitrust office. "We consider bid-rigging to be a very serious offense, and one we would likely go after in a criminal way," said Cooper.

Calls to the U.S. Department of Transportation inspector general's office, which Franchot said also was investigating, were not returned late yesterday.

The bid was submitted as a joint venture by three major construction firms: Kiewit Construction Co. of Omaha, Neb.; Tidewater Construction Corp. of Norfolk, Va.; and Clark Construction Group of Bethesda.

Replacing the bridge, which carries Interstates 95 and 495 across the Potomac River between Oxon Hill and Alexandria, Va., is one of the largest construction projects in Maryland history and the state's No. 1 transportation priority.

The heart of the project is two new six-lane spans over the Potomac, one to be completed in 2004 and the other in 2006. The federal government is putting $1.5 billion toward the $2.4 billion project, with Maryland and Virginia sharing the remaining cost.

Asked yesterday whether he was aware of an investigation, Jerry Pfeffer, spokesman for the consortium, said he was not. "To the best of my knowledge, we have not been contacted, and we have no idea what, if anything, those organizations are doing," he said.

State officials briefed legislators yesterday on preliminary findings of an independent committee charged with finding out why only one bid was received and the reasons it came in so far above expectations.

Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said the committee concurred that the consortium's bid was too high, but added that they also believed that the state's estimate was too low because engineers did not take into account "intangible" factors.

He said interviews with major contractors who did not bid revealed that some hesitated because of the tight deadlines and potential penalties for delays, the size of the contract, questions about which government entity would ultimately be accountable, and the lure of competing projects, including the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge project.

He said the department is considering rebidding the project in three or more parts to attract smaller contractors, create more competitive bidding and lower the cost.

"The idea would be to get it down into segments that could cost $200 million or less so that you can get some additional contractors interested," said Parker F. Williams, head of the State Highway Administration.

Officials also are looking at ways to change specifications that would make the project less costly without compromising quality - for example, requiring two coats of paint instead of three or using precast steel instead of structural steel.

Any of the potential changes, will not alter the design, said Porcari. "Reopening that discussion is not in the best interest of the project," he said.

Officials estimated that the rebidding could mean six to nine months of delays, but added that those delays might be offset by including incentives in the new contract for completing the work ahead of schedule.

Structural improvements made to the deteriorating bridge last summer make it unlikely that the delays will result in truck weight or traffic restrictions, they said.

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