Fixing JFX sinkhole to cost $2 million, double the original estimate

Only one contractor bids on the JFX repair project that will last until mid-June.

jfx backup

Northbound JFX traffic backed up today near the 28th Street Exit, due to a bottleneck created by the sinkhole repair project.

Photo by: Fern Shen

((UPDATED: The sinkhole contract was unanimously approved by the Board of Estimates today, while further details of the award were provided to The Brew.))

The city is set to pay $2 million to thwart a sinkhole from developing on an elevated portion of the Jones Falls Expressway.

Twelve days ago, the city shut down two lanes of the JFX (each abutting the median strip) at 29th Street after inspectors determined that a sinkhole was developing as a result of damage from collapsed drainage pipes beneath the roadway.

The Board of Estimates is set to approve tomorrow an emergency appropriation of $1,997,975 to John Brawner Contracting Co. to remove the median strip and dig down to the two collapsed pipes, one 6 feet below the surface and the other 21 feet under.

The city decided to undertake a permanent solution and, in addition to installing new pipes, clean undamaged pipes in the area and install liners to shore up pipes misaligned from water damage and age.

Price has Increased

When the city announced the emergency repairs earlier this month, the price tag was estimated at “up to $1 million” by Frank Murphy, deputy director of the city transportation department.

That figure increased after the city sought bids from four pre-qualified contractors, which included such construction stalwarts as Potts & Callahan and Cianbro.

“We held a pre-bid meeting and gave the invited bidders up to a week to ask questions, then submit bids by last week’s Board deadline,” Jamie Kendrick, another top DOT official, told The Brew.

((In an interview at the BOE meeting, Kendrick explained more about the bidding process. Of the four firms deemed pre-qualified, one – Howard T. Baker – was found to have an expired “prequal,” disqualifying it from bidding. Another firm told DOT officials it was too busy to bid on the contract, while a third shied away because it considered the project too risky.

((This left Brawner, of Hunt Valley, as the only bidder. The city has no reason to think “that that bidder knew the others were not bidding,” Kendrick said.))

Because of the many unknowns, “the budget may rise or fall depending on precise conditions found once the road is opened up,” Kendrick said. “We have conducted ground-penetrating radar, but this only gets us so much information.”

The collapsed pipes, which caused a small dip in the highway to form a year ago, were part of the inaugural section of the JFX, which opened in December 1961 from Charles Street north to Falls Road.

About 100,000 vehicles use the highway daily. Expect rush-hour traffic delays to continue as the two lanes (out of six) are scheduled to be closed for eight weeks, or until mid-June.

The emergency appropriation comes from federal highway dollars allocated to the city.

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  • Mair

    What’s the over/under on the EWOs for this project?

  • Unellu

    I dream of the day Mark will write–10 great bidders for one project–most disconnected from the politicians–lowest bidder was picked for his or her great proposal.  Work will be completed on time.  No EWOs allowed–in the signed contract.  

    • Able Baker

      That’s not how it works.  Contractors don’t make a presentation, it’s the job of the engineer and the city to make the project so that the contractors only compete on price.  The key words are lowest *responsive* bidder, which is a bidder who submits the lowest bid and satisfies all the terms of the contract.  There’s plenty of contractors that aren’t prequalified, offer incorrect materials, don’t meet MBE/WBE requirements etc that bid on jobs, but their bids don’t count because they don’t satisfy the contract.

  • Maryland Esquire

    Any insight as to why only one company bid on the project?

    On a project like this, the contractor’s price may increase due to such things as differing site conditions and variations in estimated quantities.  These are normal clauses on a construction project that allow for the fair compensation of a contractor in the event that something about the site is different than either of the parties knew it to be.

    • Anonymous

      From B Brew: See our update. Does look like DOT needs more “prequal” contractors to keep up the semblance of competitive bidding on emergency work, not an uncommon phenomenon in this burg.  -MR

  • Smiley

    This may come off as an idea out of left field, but has anyone stopped to ask whether we should fix this at all? 83 is used primarily by suburbanites who frankly don’t really like anything about Baltimore outside of their paychecks. They don’t generally engage in the life of the city, pay city taxes, support our schools, or do anything to pay for the services they use as they extract their earnings. This road is a convenience primarily for them supported mostly by Baltimore taxpayers. Oh, and you’re welcome.

    Why don’t we study the impact of simply closing those lanes of 83 and letting the free-loading suburban masses sit in traffic? Some might plead with their employers to move their offices to Owings Mills, but others might do the right thing and decide that the time has come to escape the life if high gas prices and long commutes by moving into the city.

    Take the $2 million and put it toward the construction of a shiny new elementary school, like the ones they have in the County.

    I will point out that the highly successful Washington DC has never sullied Rock Creek Park with a Rock Creek Parkway. Should we be thinking more like them? 

    • Barnadine the Pirate

      Better still, pay for it with a commuter tax.

  • Jed Weeks

    1) I’m confused as to why they closed the lane a mile or so into the JFX. It seems the merging there causes the most traffic. 

    2) I agree with the commuter tax / why bother to fix it at all points.

  • Gerald Neily

    One reason for only one bidders is that the economy has been flooded with these kinds of “shovel ready” projects due to the zillion dollar federal stimulus program. Apparently, most of the contractors are now fat ‘n’ happy and can let someone else have the work. Non-competitiveness causes costs to escalate. Many people pushing for higher taxes have argued that we need to pour even more billions on this kind of infrastructure preservation in order to strengthen our position in the world economy, along with lots more money for that other local “sinkhole”, the Maryland Transit Administration. Yeah, right.

    But the JFX really is an important road and needs to be maintained. If all that traffic gets pushed over to local streets, it’s bad for everyone. Baltimore’s leaders have made our local economy highly dependent on automobiles, with the MTA mostly just a symbolic gesture and a sop to the poor.

    Electronic tolls will probably come eventually to all our expressways, with the InterCounty Connector as the prototype. They are much more efficient and productive than a commuter tax which merely encourages businesses to move elsewhere. Highway traffic capacity has a finite limit, and variable tolls are a way to make sure that capacity is rationed efficiently. When too many cars try to use our highways, they become clogged and the flow rate can go all the way down to zero. Tolls can actually increase flow, not reduce it. And yes, Jed, merges are what cause congestion because of the demand/capacity mismatch. 

    BTW Smiley, there is a Rock Creek Parkway. It was just designed intelligently enough so it hasn’t become notorious. It actually makes the adjacent joggers feel safer. Druid Hill Park could be far more integrated with the adjacent JFX and Hampden if people wanted it to be.

    • Barnadine the Pirate

      Either elevate or move the Light Rail underground from North Avenue to Camden Yards, so it can move faster than traffic. Then you can reduce 83 to two lanes. Don’t like it? Take the light rail.

      Better still, run five or six subway lines criss-crossing the city and inner-ring suburbs, end 83 at the Beltway, and instead of pouring money into endless highway sprawl, become a transit-oriented state.

  • PCCP

    Gerald: you are WAY off. contractors are hungry. look at bid results for any other muncipality. the numbers are very very close. However, that doesn’t mean you will do a risky project for real cheap.  Just guessing at the probable work, their choice of contractors doesn’t make a lot of sense.  of the 3 possible bidders the city solicited, Potts and Callahan is a dirt moving/sitework contractor. their  emphasis isn’t structural repairs. Cianbro probably could have bid it, but since they don’t do a ton of work for the city why would they waste their time on this small job when their specialty is projects worth over 15 million dollars?

     one contractor who maybe should have been asked to look at it is American Infrastructure.  they are doing the Fort Avenue bridge and maybe the city still has sour grapes after they hit that gas line and knocked all those residents in Locust Point offline for a few days.  Curious they also didn’t ask Allied Contractors.  they do a ton of work in the city, and they can do bridgework.  On the surface, this looks like their type of work, though admittedly I don’t know the specifics about what might be involved.

    The state has on call contracts out there to handle emergency repairs to their
    highways and bridges, but inside the city limits I-83 does not belong to
    MDSHA. But that is an issue with emergency work. you aren’t going to pay people to sit around and wait for the city to call you with an emergency job.  if they have people, they are all working right now on a project, and most contracts ( even working for general contractors) have a completion date with liquidated damages to be enforced because they don’t want contractors walking off the job to do another job. give them a chance to do so, and they will.

    the city should be happy Brawner got this job. I would be if I worked for them. They do this kind of work. a few years ago Baltimore County advertised a very similar job and received only one bid and it was from Brawner.  and that’s an agency who actually pays their contractors on time.

    take note, city officials.  this is your reputation.

    and  in reply to BaltimoreBrew: it is up to the contractors to keep their qualifications renewed every year. at some point if you don’t do any work for the agency, it becomes a waste of time for your administrative staff to do the paperwork. the biggest problems the reputation the city has is with their outrageous mbe goals, their lack of payment to contractors, vague things written into contracts which are seldom enforced, and the perception of favoritism. 

    it is also not a good idea to take a statement from a city official 1 month ago, out of context, about what the price was worth. Things could have been added to the contract, new information discovered, or contingencies otherwise accounted for in the cost for contract. Especially so on a rush emergency job, the contract probably has errors written in it. And unless the person writing it has a good handle on the work and how a contractor might approach it, or what is industry standard for common situations, you might get a contract that prospective bidders might throw in the trash. you don’t just say ” thats the job in its entirety, we can do it for x dollars”. there are bid items, and how those are measured is how the contractors get paid.  in a poorly written contract, one party can exploit this.

    • Gerald Neily

      Thanks, PCCP, you sound like you really know your contractor stuff. I’ll hide behind the word “apparently…” along with my statement that the work really needed to get done so the city had to do it. 

  • Unellu

    Why are the contracts poorly written?  The city has a whole lot of competent lawyers working for it, doesn’t it?  Is the city defaulting on payments to its contractors?  If emergency contractors are busy with other jobs and can’t wait around for the city to call, then what happens in the event of a real emergency?    

    • PCCP

      well not all contracts are poorly written. but on a rush job its a higher probability that mistakes are in the contract documents because they weren’t written by the right people/ or they didn’t take the time to think about the job. the right person to write this isn’t a lawyer. its a construction man who knows what should be paid as an extra and what is contractors risk. the lawyers also have nothing to do with the pay items and quantities.

      but the clerical errors in the contract docs are stunning, because it tells me nobody is looking at these things properly before they go out the door and become legally binding.

      as far as what happens in an emergency:

      well, it depends on the emergency. I would think the city has the authority to get whoever they need in there on a force account basis in an emergency type situation where the job cannot be advertised, even in this semi-informal matter. such approval may need to come from the Mayor, but if its a true emergency i don’t think it matters.

      the city has their own forces to handle water emergencies, like when the
      giant 72″ pipe broke in dundalk. they will stop the bleeding so to
      speak….but the city has contracts for people to sew the arm back
      together to use an analogy.

      I mean, the people who do this stuff for the living have the expertise. for an inspector they might only see a situation every so often, whereas a specialty contractor does it every day. i have seen where rival companies have been called by public agencies to inspect a mini disaster caused by a contractor to give their unofficial 3rd party assessment on what went wrong. Don’t bet that the city didn’t talk to Brawner and ask them how do we fix this before the thing was even semi advertised. But that is pure speculation, and the guy from the city said it best: ( which is what i have been saying all along in the wake of the tears about the EWO’s)  “you won’t know what you have until you start digging”. That is the reaping the rewards of doing good work and having an outstanding reputation. people want to call you when TSHTF.

  • John Stechschulte

    100,000 vehicles per day each paying a $1 toll, could pay for this repair in three weeks. 

  • Gerald Neily

    I’m on the same page as both Bernadine and John Stech, but John aptly shows how we still need to use the JFX as a cash cow rather than dismantling it. Right on, John !! On the other hand, as much as we need much better transit, it will never be a cash cow and the city and MTA’s penchant for just throwing money at the transit system is a big reason we’re in the mess we’re in.

    • Nashorn

      Federal law prohibits the introduction of tolls on Interstate highways unless those tolls are going to be used to repay money spent on major new projects (e.g. the new express lanes on I-95)

      • Gerald Neily

        Federal laws are changeable, and even if it isn’t, the money could be laundered by the state. It’s just bookkeeping.

  • Nashorn

    I think you’d have to convince the State Highway Administration of the wisdom of the idea, the State legislature would have to approve the “laundering” concept, then changing federal laws regarding the Interstate Highway System should be a snap.

    • Gerald Neily

      Right, Nashorn. MDOT now has the EZ Pass machinery up and running. The US DOT had a “demonstration” program for “congestion pricing” some years ago which the SHA is well aware of, and which may still be active or could be revived. The state has laundered transportation money many times. Like I said, I’m looking to the future. 

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