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Monday, May 21, 2012

Eads Bridge Restoration Plagued by Delays, Labor Squabbling

BY KEN LEISER • > 314-340-8215 | Posted: Monday, May 21, 2012 12:10 am
ST. LOUIS • The Metro transit agency’s restoration of the historic Eads Bridge — a key “shovel ready” project financed by the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package — has been delayed more than two years while its costs soared.
Records and interviews show the cost of replacing track supports, track and rail ties, patching masonry, along with sandblasting then repainting the structural steel, has ballooned to $36.3 million from the agency’s original $23 million cost estimate.
Delays on the Eads project drew a terse warning last fall from the Federal Transit Administration and a reminder that the project — like others paid for by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — was supposed to be ready for construction shortly after the money was granted in July 2009. The act sought to immediately boost the economy and create jobs, while upgrading infrastructure.
What’s more, a whistleblower’s lawsuit, unsealed last month, asserted Metro went too far to accommodate labor unions by illegally tossing out a contractor who entered the lowest bid but was not "union-affiliated." The suit contends Metro failed to abide by federal laws when it required a "mandatory, union-only project labor agreement.” 
Metro engineer Eric Fields withdrew the filing after U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan declined to join the action. Fields is Metro's project manager on the Eads Bridge rehabilitation.
What emerges from Metro’s files is that labor organizations on both sides of Mississippi River didn’t see eye-to-eye on the type of project-labor agreement to use.
Project labor agreements generally require contractors to negotiate with trade unions and set standards for wages, hiring and benefits. In exchange, unions agree not to halt work on a project.
Members of the two-state agency’s governing board stepped in to settle the dispute.
"This issue revolves around a disagreement between the Illinois and Missouri building and construction trades councils about which labor agreement to use to govern any contract we would approve for the Eads Bridge," then-Metro Board Chairman Vincent Schoemehl told board members in an Oct. 7 email.
The Missouri and Illinois labor councils pushed for different project-labor agreements, Schoemehl wrote. Metro's management team expressed concern that the Illinois project-labor agreement would result in higher costs. The Missouri council voted not to accept the Illinois agreement, Schoemehl wrote.
"Several commissioners have been working on this and I have done everything I can think of to find a mutually acceptable way to move forward," he wrote. "I believe we have to proceed with this project for the fiduciary health of the agency and the safety of the community."
Metro President and CEO John Nations said Friday that the Obama administration encouraged project-labor agreements on federally funded projects costing more than $25 million. Metro decided to move forward using the National Maintenance Agreement, a project-labor agreement that had been ratified by international unions.
Nations said the Eads project is on firm financial footing and that the St. Louis-based transit agency has the money to pay for the project. The City of St. Louis has assigned its $6 million grant to Eads Bridge rehabilitation, and much of the remainder will come from other federal funds.
Nations defended the decision to re-bid the Eads Bridge rehabilitation project after the initial round of bids came in well above Metro’s initial estimates. Metro’s consultants had underestimated the costs of paint and a protective containment system for stripped paint.
The Eads Bridge opened in July 1874. Designed by Capt. James Buchanan Eads, it cost nearly $7 million and took seven years to build. The bridge is now used to get MetroLink trains across the Mississippi River. It also provides a vehicle crossing between St. Louis and the Metro East.
"The lowest bid was 50 percent more than the initial cost estimate," Nations said. "We had to look at why that was. And ultimately the board determined that the most prudent thing to do was to go back and look at it. Restructure our bidding. And rebid the project."
The original bids ranged from $33.6 million to $44.7 million. When Metro rebid the project, the bids came back even higher, between $36.3 million and $49.5 million.
Gail Svoboda, president of Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. of Prior Lake, Minn. -- the original low bidder at $33.6 million in December 2010 -- said Metro’s process left him "very upset." The two other bids were $40.3 million and $44.7 million.
Svoboda said he spoke to a lawyer about Metro’s process but was advised that public agencies have the latitude to reject bids in such cases. He did not protest, recalling that he thought it would be an "uphill battle." Svoboda did not participate the second time around because he won't bid "where a project-labor agreement is a condition of bidding a job."
Svoboda said it was "obvious" from the start that his open-shop status posed an obstacle to winning the job. His firm was the only one not union-affiliated in the original round of bidding.
Both Nations and Schoemehl said Abhe & Svoboda’s status as a non-union firm played no role in the decision. In an interview, Schoemehl recalled that the board was concerned about Metro's original cost estimate, which appeared to leave "a big chunk" of the work out. 
"The bids were all over the board," he said. "What we didn't want to do was to have a project that ended up with a bunch of change orders. We had just come off that cross-county (MetroLink) mess. That was one of the problems. You had all these cost overruns. We did not want to go back and relive that."
The cross-county MetroLink extension between Forest Park and Shrewsbury opened 15 months late and $126 million over budget. Metro unsuccessfully sued its original design and construction management companies.
In September, Regional Administrator Mokhtee Ahmad of the Federal Transit Administration wrote Nations to "express concern regarding the continual schedule delays" on the Eads project and to stress that it remains "one of the White House top priority ARRA projects."
"The objective of ARRA is to stimulate the economy by creating jobs with ‘shovel ready’ projects," Ahmad wrote. "The grant indicated that a construction contract would be awarded in September 2009 and the total project cost would be $24 million."
Ahmad added that stimulus funds that weren’t spent by September 2015 would have to be returned to the U.S. Treasury and would not be available for Metro’s use on the project. He could not be reached last week.
Nations downplayed the conversations and letters with the FTA.
"We deal with FTA deadlines all the time on a variety of funding sources – not just ARRA, but on every grant funding source that we use," he said. "So we are always mindful of the timelines."
Metro officials on Tuesday will gather with local dignitaries and a top Federal Transit Administration official will gather near the bridge to mark the long-awaited launch of the Eads rehab project.
The St. Louis Bridge Construction Co., of Arnold, was hired to do the work after entering a $36.3 million bid in December. The company has begun taking measurements and work should begin in July, said Chris Poehler, Metro’s senior vice president of engineering and new systems development. The National Maintenance Agreement will serve as the project-labor agreement, Metro officials said last week.
It is expected to be complete by late 2014 or early 2015, he said.
Nations said the Eads rehabilitation work also had to await completion of track improvements near the east riverfront that will allow Metro to shut down one of the two tracks being replaced. All traffic will be reduced to a single track across the river during the project.

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