Harford Road Bridge to open tomorrow after a raft of cost overruns – and more to come
Finally finished, the bridge is an object lesson on how not to handle a large construction project
Above: The Harford Road Bridge over Herring Run, closed since fall 2018, is scheduled to open to traffic October 1. (Baltimore DOT)
When it opens to traffic tomorrow, the $25.3 million Harford Road Bridge will feature many improvements over its century-old predecessor.
Bike advocates successfully fought for dedicated bike lanes in place of the original design of four high-speed car lanes.
There will be ample overhead lighting, ADA-compliant sidewalks, new traffic signals, scads of flexi-posts and a rebuilt Herring Run walkway under the bridge.
The city plans no official ceremony this weekend despite northeast Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s suggestion of a celebratory “bridge party.”
Before any bottles are broken and accolades dished out, one should consider the problems that have plagued this project, drawing out construction for four full years and raising costs by over 30%.
The added costs have impacted other planned or ongoing bridge construction projects – at Sisson Street (now closed to traffic), Broening Highway, Russell Street and Monroe Street – that must compete for scarce federal and city funds.
Equally ominous is the unspecified monetary claims that the Harford Road Bridge contractor has submitted to the city Department of Transportation.
“I don’t know how much more to speak on it,” Corren Johnson, DOT deputy director, told the Board of Estimates last week before Comptroller Bill Henry interrrupted.
A project whose original price seemed too good to be true is turning out to be just that.
Motioning toward city solicitor James Shea, Henry said, “I’m getting a very very subtle but respectful sign from our counsel that we won’t go into details on that at this time. But that is something the board should be prepared for as we move forward to close out this contract.”
In other words, a project whose original price seemed too good to be true is turning out to be just that – and there’s no word on how much more money the city may be on the hook for.
First Project for Contractor
Back in 2018, Technopref Industries, a newcomer to city contracting, beat out five competitors by offering to replace the crumbling Harford Road Bridge with a brand new structure for $18.99 million.
The bid was $4 million under the price estimated by DOT’s own engineering staff.
Considering it a great bargain, then-DOT Director Michelle Pourciau greenlighted the project, and the Board of Estimates under Mayor Catherine Pugh approved the contract.
Almost from the start, EWOs (Extra Work Orders) starting gushing in.
At first, Technopref said flooding at Herring Run had caused widespread damage. An allegedly faulty stream diversion design by engineers Whitman Requardt – who had earlier won a $438,000 EWO from the spending board to redesign the bridge – was blamed. That added $823,908 to the bridge price.
More washouts occurred, and soon the city was giving another $400,000 to Technopref to repair the adjacent Herring Run Greenway Trail.
Skyrocketing Rock Removal
Then there was the issue of “excessive rock excavation.”
Because 125% more rock was found at the site than estimated by Whitman Requardt, Technopref was able to invoke a provision in the contract that forced renegotiation of the price for rock excavation.
That resulted in the cost of rock removal jumping from $65 per cubic yard to $188 per cubic yard, which added $1.6 million to the bridge’s cost in a single swoop in 2020. (Technopref originally wanted $212/CY, but DOT said it pushed down it to $188/CY, which was still three times the bid price.)
As a federally funded project, trained and certified inspectors were needed to put their stamp of approval on the construction. DOT’s cadre of inspectors were apparently not up to the task.
In September 2020, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young (with the approval of then-City Council President Brandon Scott) awarded $1 million to Rummel, Klepper & Kahl to provide supplemental inspection services at the site. The contract has since been renewed.
A dozen more EWOs ensued. Earlier this year, for example, the spending board (now under the control of Mayor Scott) paid $501,997.06 to Technopref to repair storm damage to the original completed stream diversion.
This included payments for “extended crane rental, extended dewatering system rental and insurance payments associated with the events,” according to BOE records.
Last week, the BOE was confronted with the project’s 14th and 15th EWOs that seemed to revisit the same kind of extra costs covered by earlier EWOs.
Consider EWO No. 14. It awarded Technoprof $593,300.50 for more excavation – this time for “utility rock” that was “encountered at a higher elevation than anticipated from the borings.”
EWO No. 15 added $440,036.47 to the contract price to fix a city water line near the bridge. Tacked onto this EWO was a flat $100,000 paid to Technopref to compensate the company for unspecified “rain events.”
The project’s 14th and 15th EWOs seem to revisit the same kind of extra costs covered by earlier EWOs.
DOT’s Johnson downplayed the latest overruns by citing the original engineers’ estimate ($23 million) rather than the approved bid, saying that “based on the engineers’ estimate, we’re only 13% over [budget].”
She also pointed out that the federal government pays 80% of the costs, without noting that the overruns are deducted from the city’s limited pot of federal highway money, so that other pressing road projects will be delayed.
Asked why the project took four years to finish, DOT’s bridge chief, Scott Weaver, harkened back to 2018. “We had a lot of rain, heavy thunderstorms as most of the people in the city know, back then. That flooded the project site and caused significant delays,” he said.
Avoiding a Conversation
The revelation that Technopref has lodged monetary claims against the city – in addition to upcoming EWOs 16 and 17 – led Comptroller Henry to wonder whether a lowest bid is always the best bid, even when evidence exists that a contractor may be low-balling the price.
“It does seem like maybe we should be having a conversation about when the low bid is that much lower than the engineer’s estimate. It seems like this should be setting off some type of conversation internally about how that project is to end up going. But as I said, we’ll come back to that conversation in the future.”
“It seems like this should be setting off some type of conversation internally” – Comptroller Bill Henry.
Surrounding the comptroller were Jason Mitchell, director of public works; Nick Mosby, head of the City Council; Christopher Shorter, the city administrator; and City Solicitor Shea – all persons charged with improving procurement practices and monitoring city contracts.
No one responded to Henry’s call for a “future conversation” about getting city construction projects on schedule and on budget.
Instead, the board unanimously approved the latest EWOs from Technopref.