Bids on the largest contract in the construction of the new Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge came in well below the state's estimate yesterday, to the relief of highway officials who were able to declare the project on time and under budget.
It's a remarkable turnaround from 1 1/2 years ago, when only a single company bid on the main contract to build the bridge that carries Interstate 95 over the Potomac River. That bid, at $860 million, was almost double what the state expected to pay.
Officials divided the contract for the bridge's superstructure - essentially the portion over the water - into three parts. Yesterday, they opened the bids for the final part, a 3,300-foot piece from the Maryland shore to a draw span near the Virginia border. State engineers had estimated the contract at $255 million.
They whistled in wonder when the low bid came in at $191 million. The apparent low bidder is a joint venture called Potomac Constructors, which is composed of three firms - Edward Kraemer & Sons of Plain, Wis., and American Bridge Co. and Trumbull Corp., both of Pittsburgh.
"This is very good news," said a beaming Neil Pedersen, acting administrator of the State Highway Administration. "We're back on track with where our original estimates were, and we're very pleased with that."
The new bridge will be twin six-lane spans over the Potomac from Prince George's County to Alexandria, Va., replacing the current bridge, which is a key East Coast highway link. The bridge opened in 1961 with the capacity to carry 75,000 vehicles daily. It now carries 190,000 daily.
The first span is scheduled to open in early 2006, the second in early 2008. The total cost for the project - including the 1.1-mile bridge and 6.4 miles of new highway approaching it - is $2.56 billion.
But Pedersen said officials will review the budget in the next few weeks and likely will lower the total projected cost now that so many of the contracts have come in under expectations. Twenty of the 24 contracts awarded so far were below the state's estimate. About a dozen contracts are yet to be let.
So far, the foundation has been poured and the pedestals that will form the visible base of the bridge at the water line are in place. The pedestals will hold V-shaped piers that will support the bridge deck.
Those piers will present the biggest challenge in building the bridge, contractors said. Each one will weigh 100 tons and require heavy machinery to move into place. "It's a fairly complicated job, technically," said Michael R. Fischer, chief of the construction division of Kraemer and Sons.
Kraemer and Sons and American Bridge formed another joint venture that won the contract to build the draw span two months ago. So they already have workers on site.
Two years ago, then Gov. Parris N. Glendening pushed to impose union work rules on the project. That tactic ultimately failed, but much of the bridge's construction is now being done with union workers anyway. All three companies that are in the joint venture with the apparent low bid plan to use union labor.
There were three other bids yesterday ranging from $197 million to $213 million. By breaking the project into three jobs, the state appears to have succeeded in encouraging smaller companies to bid. "It's obvious there's more competition this second go-round, and competition makes everybody a little more aggressive," said Bob Luffy, president and chief executive officer of American Bridge.