Monday, September 7, 2015

Bridge Envy

You could be forgiven for thinking that founding father and American Revolution-era author Thomas Paine must have been inching along in traffic on a stiflingly hot August day, late for an appointment, when he uttered his famous quote “These are the times that try men’s souls”.

Literary references aside, local traffic jams caused by road construction, paving, sewer line installations, roadside power line upgrades, and numerous bridge replacement projects – all more or less taking place at the same time - are testing motorists’ good will and patience this summer as many LP residents find themselves going nowhere fast when attempting to get to work, shuttle kids to camp and athletic events, get to the doctor or dentist, or run even the smallest of errands.

We’re all used to road projects. It’s for good reason that a running joke is that the Pennsylvania state tree is a traffic cone. We all understand intellectually that road and infrastructure improvements are an inconvenient but necessary part of life. But locally, two major projects taking place simultaneously – the replacement of the Arcola Road Bridge (closed in August 2013) between Lower and Upper Providences, and the completion of the cloverleaf at Trooper Road and 422 - are the primary culprits, and other projects affect the detours and secondary routes we all use to avoid them.

Over in neighboring Chester County, the announcement in April of the commencement of work to the Pickering Creek Dam bridge on Route 23 near where it intersects with Pawlings Road – the main route from the southern end of LPT into Phoenixville and Valley Forge – has only added to the delays and frustration.

So, what’s a community to do when they aren’t fortunate enough to have former county commissioner and new PennDOT chief Leslie Richards embedded in the community as a resident capable of getting a bridge (really two culverts side by side) engineered, rebuilt and reopened in her locale in a mere five months? (detailed here)

The Pickering Dam bridge, like the ARB, is a total teardown and rebuild project (with repairs to the piers, instead of replacing them), but unlike the ARB, it’s cost was approximately $1.7M and is expected to be completed in a mere 6 months (originally scheduled to be completed in April of next year, new performance incentives have accelerated its anticipated completion date by 6 months - story here). 

Despite claims from some of our local officials that the projects aren’t similar at all (although in many ways, they are…they are both similar lengths, widths, square footage, and span), Chester County and state officials, including state Sen. Andy Dinniman, were able to find the funds to reopen and renegotiate the contract with successful bidder J.D. Eckman to build in incentives for each day Eckman improves upon the original project completion date and the Pickering Creek Dam bridge is reopened early. The contractor also agreed to work five ten-hour days per week instead of four.

Naturally, LPT residents are scratching their heads and enviously asking: Why do we have to wait a long three years’ worth of sitting in traffic and detoured routes for OUR bridge (closed in August 2013) to be completed when it is clearly possible to do so faster?

Photo credit: Main Line Media News
While the two projects are similar in some ways, a direct comparison is difficult because in many ways it’s an apples-to-oranges scenario. For starters, Pickering/Route 23 is a state road and 100% state project, versus ARB, which is a Montgomery County-owned bridge. The repairs are being funded partly by the federal government, along with state and county funds. Their design and bid processes are different right out of the gate.

Second, Pickering is a part of a larger state project known as Act 89. Also known as the Transportation Bill, it covers numerous bridge and road improvements across Pennsylvania and was signed into law in 2013 by Governor Tom Corbett. It allocates $2.3 billion in funding for transportation-related projects in Pennsylvania, including road and bridge projects.  PennDOT claims Act 89 “promotes coordinated planning and implementation to ensure greatest return on investment.”

And, the Pickering Dam bridge project was on the state’s radar for the past ten years as needing replacement so some preparation had already been made by the time Act 89 was enacted, whereas several past County administrations had kicked the ARB can down the road until it could no longer be postponed. While design plans had been drawn up some time ago - which called for a side-by-side rebuild while the existing bridge was still open - deterioration and closure of the ARB in August 2013 necessitated scratching that plan and starting over.  Single-source funding under Act 89 made it easier to do incentives on that project.

Third, the ARB required the purchase of a number of easements from private residents, some of which had to be negotiated, and this dragged out the timeline before construction could even begin. The Pickering Dam bridge project did not require acquisition of easements.

Fourth, Pickering Dam Bridge carries approximately 20,000 cars per day whereas ARB carries in the neighborhood of 9000 cars per day, and with 11,000 more pain points over in Phoenixville, clearly Pickering Dam Bridge appears to be a higher priority from a regional perspective.
Photo credit: Mike Vereb

And let’s not forget that there was about a six-week delay in December 2014-January 2015 when workers for successful bidder Allan A. Myers L.P. of Worcester who were tearing down the old ARB bridge discovered the presence of lead-based paint (verified by PennDOT officials), requiring a revamped, nonhazardous demolition strategy. 

Montgomery County is the conduit through which PennDOT bid the job, negotiated the final construction contract, and payments to the contractor are being made. Despite the fact that the lowest bid for the ARB project was almost $2.5M less than the amount budgeted for the project, the July 5, 2016 timeline was built into the contract and, unlike the Route 23/Pickering project – for who knows what reason – there were no performance incentives included in the deal to encourage them to get it done faster. In addition, there are, as far as I can tell, no terms that require a certain number of hours to be worked per day or a particular number of employees to be dedicated to the ARB project.

By comparison, the Pickering Dam bridge contract specifies working hours of 9 am to 3 pm (to avoid rush hours) and allows for the possibility of overnight work. The newly negotiated agreement does not note a total cost for the incentives but notes “Cost has been negotiated and agreed with Department representatives. Acceleration has been started with extended work hours, overtime, and extra Friday work shifts.” A cover letter accompanying PennDOT’s response to my Right to Know request states that “ While PennDOT has agreed to pay a lump sum to accelerate delivery of the project to November 26, 2015 (as evidenced by the enclosed Contract Work Authorization) it has not yet reduced to writing its agreement in principle with the contractor relative to an incentive payment. Subject to change, the parties have conceptually agreed that if the contractor completes the project early, it will receive $3,000 for each day in advance of the November 26, 2015 date.” (more info here)

Residents driving by the Arcola Road Bridge project regularly report via Facebook seeing no, or only one or two, workers during normal working hours. Progress appears to be moving at a snail’s pace, and whatever is getting accomplished down there seems to be happening far too slowly for most residents. However, Upper Providence Township supervisor John Pearson, who lives along the UPT side of the bridge and whose home looks down upon the creek bed, told us at a July 30 public meeting held by state Rep. Mike Vereb at the LP Township building in response to complaints voiced at the “Living in Lower Providence” Facebook page, that workers are indeed there every day, often begin work at 6 am, and that it can be difficult to see from road height just what is happening.

So, don’t blame the contractor, Allan Myers.When the Montco commissioners/PennDOT bid the ARB job, more than $7 million was budgeted, but the lowest responsible bidder (Myers) came in at $5.3M. Thus, there is additional money available to reopen and renegotiate the contract to provide performance incentives for Allan Myers (which various sources familiar with this and similar projects have suggested would run in the neighborhood of $200,000-$300,000).

photo credit: Times Herald Oct 2014
So – why haven’t our local officials tried to do the same thing for our bridge project? Why can’t we, too, renegotiate the contract to build in some financial incentives to the contractor to speed up completion and reopening?  Fact is, they have raised the subject, but so far it’s fallen on deaf ears with the Montco commissioners.

According to Charles Metzger, PennDOT Community Relations Coordinator, told me that it was easier to do incentives on the Pickering Dam bridge project because as an Act 89 project which funds numerous other highway/transportation projects across the Commonwealth, it was easier to move money under that funding umbrella from another, less-critical project to this one to provide the incentives.

As to ARB, while Vereb initially (and, as it turns out, erroneously) stated at the July 30 meeting that contracts like ARB that are largely federally funded could not have incentives, I’ve learned that’s not exactly the case. Not only are they permitted, but the federal government actually prefers to build incentives into their agreements wherever possible.
As of 8-31-15. Photo credit: Susan Wozniak
Since Montgomery County has the least amount of skin in the game – 5% versus 15% from the State and 80% from the feds - and it IS their bridge, I’m not sure I understand why something can’t be done, particularly since the County negotiated and awarded the contract in the first place.

Considering that Montco commissioner’s chair Josh Shapiro has been quoted in the press recently boasting about their financial prowess and how they are sitting on enough reserve cash to float numerous social service agencies in the area for several months during the prolonged state budget standoff, surely their alleged financial acumen could be applied to ponying up some incentive money to get the ARB completed much faster than July 2016, especially given that the bid award was substantially less than that budgeted for the project.

LP’s traffic engineer, Casey Moore, from the firm McMahon Associates, told me that “contractors like Allan Myers are always looking for performance incentives because they have an ability to meet them and make some money”, and that they’d thus likely be very open to the possibility.

I also spoke to Seth Myers, Vice President of Business Development at Allan Myers, who reiterated that the speed and pace of construction is out of their control, noting that “We are given specs and a schedule to follow” post-bid award, and allocate their resources accordingly. The firm was, until recently, unaware of all the Facebook chatter directing blame for the slow construction pace and alleged inactivity on the project firmly in their direction, and told me “We appreciate people’s frustration in not being able to use the bridge, but we will deliver the completed bridge on time”. The company manages over 450 projects statewide and has allocated its resources and paced work according to contractual requirements for each – including the ARB.
Allan Myers has compelling reasons to deliver on time: there are Road User Liquidated Damages of $27,009 built into the ARB agreement to be assessed for every day or portion of a day after July 5, 2016 that the ARB is not open to unrestricted traffic on all lanes, and another $27,009 assessment for each day or portion of a day that the detour is not removed on or after July 5, 2016.
There is an additional cost to the contractor (Construction Engineer Liquidated Damages) of $3,325 for each day that any physical work remains uncompleted after the Required Completion Date, to be deducted from money due or to become due. Thus, for each day that this project remains incomplete after July 5, 2016, it will cost Allan Myers $57,343.
At the July 30 meeting, Rep. Vereb reiterated that we shaved about 14 months off the beginning phase of the project because they got the plan designed, approved, bid and awarded in 13 months instead of the 24 months it could have taken, as well as doing a number of things concurrently that normally are done consecutively, such as DEP review, utility relocation plan, traffic impact study, stormwater plan, environmental study, etc. Each normally has a 60-90 day review period, and we saved 6-7 months right there. He also indicated that originally it was hoped that the new bridge could be built side-by-side with the old one while it was still open, but having to shut it down as unsafe rendered that impossible.

But Upper Providence Township supervisor and chairman Lisa Mossie recently weighed in on Facebook, taking issue with the Montco commissioners: "County knew they were going to close this bridge months before they actually did, yet they had no engineered plans in place and it costs us months on the design work. Leslie's [PennDOT chief Richards] Plymouth Road Bridge was closed completely unexpectedly because of sinkholes, and not only did they get it fixed in five short months with no engineering in place, but they filled two developing sinkholes and re-routed a stream. All in less time than it took them to just get started on Arcola."

By all accounts, officials for both townships, Rep. Vereb's office, and State Sen. John Rafferty's office have been relentless in trying to coordinate activities with the county and contractor and push for forward movement. Vereb particularly called out LPT manager Richard Gestrich as being very vocal and tenacious in getting answers and action.
Vereb indicated that in all likelihood, if we have a mild winter, the project will be completed early, in mid-spring 2016, and they won’t hold up the opening for esthetics like landscaping and minor finishing touches. However, don’t start your engines just yet: In an August 16, 2015 Associated Press article, Farmers’ Almanac editor Janice Stillman says the Northeast will see a winter of heavy snowfall and below-normal, frigid temperatures.

Unfortunately for us, it may be that the contractual maneuverings are just water under the bridge at this point and all we can do is wait for whichever happens first – a performance incentive from the county commissioners (all of whom are running for re-election or, in Castor's case, hoping to be elected back to the DA's office), or spring thaw.

Photo credit: CBS Philly

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