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MDOT To Delay Bids on Bridges
Design-Build Method Leaves Many Unknowns

by Keith Burton - GCN     Filed 12/20/05   Updated 12/22/05

MDOT will delay receiving and opening bids for the rebuilding of the Biloxi-Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis Bridges for at least two weeks. The delay was confirmed Tuesday afternoon in an interview with MDOT's David Foster, assistant chief engineer for pre-construction.

Foster says that MDOT still does not have the money to rebuild the bridges that were largely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina four months ago. He says that the delay in Washington over the Katrina relief package is partly responsible, but they also want to give the list of bidders more time to prepare their proposals. Six companies have been selected for a short list of bidders for the two projects, three for each bridge.

The money issue, however, should be resolved with the Senate Passage of the $29-Billion Katrin relief bill Wednesday night. That bill contains $740 million to repair Mississippi’s roads and bridges.

MDOT had announced that they wanted to received bids by the end of the month, and open bids January 9. But now the awarding of the bids will not be until late in January.

Meanwhile, MDOT's plan to use the Design-Build method of construction means that the agency doesn't have any specifics as to what the bridges will actually look like. Foster says that they are providing fairly rudimentary requirements such as lanes, height and where the bridges are to be located. He says that the contractors will submit proposals as to the designs and esthetics later.

Bridges are often used to establish a certain theme or esthetic to a city, such as what the Golden Gate bridge does for San Francisco, but Foster says a suspension bridge is not feasible and is too expensive. Still, he says the contractors will be judged partially on their esthetic design.

Foster says that the design for the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge will include replacing the bridge over the railroad track in Ocean Springs and will have a terminus just east of McElroy's Seafood Restaurant. He also said that the curve on the west side near Biloxi will be reduced. Both bridges, in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, will have a pedestrian walkway on land under the bridges for people to cross to the other side.

There remains a considerable number of questions over how the bridges will be paid for. MDOT is notorious for promising bridges and roads, then failing to deliver on time. The Cowan-Lorraine Road is a good example, which was delayed for years. There are also questions regarding the Design-Build method that MDOT is using for the first time.

Design-Build sharply cuts the traditional oversight that protects the public's interest regarding poor construction and fraud. MDOT insists that it has thought this through, but this will be the first time MDOT has ever used this method to build anything in the state. Foster says that it will save MDOT time as the bridges will be built as they are designed. Essentially, the contractor will begin construction BEFORE they have their plans finalized.

GCN asked if this would create a situation that the contractor will not know what is true costs are and numerous and costly change orders would result. Foster said that a change order process will be part of the contract.

GCN also asked why the bids have not been received before the money was finalized as it seems that the contractor could just bid to match the available money. Foster said that MDOT has a rough cost estimate based upon its experience and that the estimated $200-million price for each bridge could come in just under those amounts. Still, Foster says MDOT has no experience with Design-Build contracts, though he said Florida frequently uses that method.

GCN asked Foster if he knew if Florida used the Design-Build method for bridge construction, and Foster said he did not know. But he explained that the Design-Build system should save time over the conventional design-bid-build process that is the traditional method.

"Design bid is not low bid, but best value" said Foster. "With the Design-Bid-Build method it would take us at least eight months (to design the bridge). With the Design-Build method, your plans continue to be updated as you come out of the ground."

GCN is concerned that the state is setting a situation up that could actually delay the completion of the bridges due to unexpected costs or design problems stemming from a project that is engineered as it is built. Foster said he thought his agency could handle those issues.

"The contractors assume the liability and safety," Foster said.

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