Engineering firms key players in Concord's plans
A rendering of what North Main Street would look like after the Main Street project changes. Louis Karno & Company Communications, the public relations firm handling the Main Street project, released these illustrations updated with changes that the project would bring to downtown Concord. (Pixate Solutions for City of Concord)
When engineer Gene McCarthy sat down in front of a semi-circle of city councilors mid-February, he had some explaining to do.
His firm, McFarland Johnson, had calculated the cost estimates for the Main Street redesign project – and their numbers had fallen millions short of the amount asked by the pair of contractors that bid on construction.
“I just can’t understand how your firm wouldn’t understand at the very beginning and say to us, ‘Guys, you’re going to add quite a bit of cost to the project because of what you’re doing,’ ” said At-Large City Councilor Mark Coen. “I don’t get that. I really don’t.”
At-Large Councilor Fred Keach was more blunt.
“I’m becoming increasingly skeptical of McFarland Johnson and their advice,” Keach said.
Along with CMA Engineers Inc., McFarland Johnson is one of two engineering firms on retainer for the city, quiet cogs drawn into the spotlight only when the plans they help lay go off the tracks. They are private partners for the city’s public infrastructure projects – and they have billed Concord nearly $1.7 million since 2012, according to city records.
At that February meeting, the council looked to McCarthy and City Engineer Ed Roberge to explain the future of the Main Street project – and they did so, in patient and reasoned tones. At the March council meeting, Roberge and another McFarland Johnson representative outlined Concord’s options to replace the Sewalls Falls Bridge.
“Our consultant engineers support us as an extension of the city,” Roberge said. “They’re providing a service to us.”
When Roberge came to the engineering department in 2005, he said, the city turned to outside consultants to design almost all of its projects. In the nine years since, he has asked his staff to take on as much of that design work as possible.
“We take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re capable and we do a lot of in-house design,” Roberge said.
Roberge’s 17-person department still doesn’t have the time or the expertise to do it all. So the city still calls on outside partners to help engineer the plans for some of its larger projects, and in 2012, Concord put out a three-year contract for two consultant firms that would be kept on retainer with the city. Out of seven firms that bid on the contract, CMA Engineers of Portsmouth and McFarland Johnson of Concord won.
“The benefit is that projects large or small come up, and . . . you’ve got somebody on call that you can quickly go to and get a project moving,” said Doug Ross, the city’s purchasing manager.
These contracts save the city money and resources, Roberge said, because he doesn’t have to go through the process of hiring an engineer each time he needs one. So when CMA Engineers works on the improvements to Route 3 in Penacook, or when McFarland Johnson draws up plans for a new Sewalls Falls Bridge, their teams already know how the city works. And in turn, Roberge knows the firms he’s dealing with.
“We know what their technical expertise is,” Roberge said.
These relationships are built on mutual understandings – and on an understanding of trust. At that council meeting on the Main Street project and since then, for example, some city councilors and staff have been careful not to cast blame on McFarland Johnson for the rocky path to the downtown redesign.
“There were some comments earlier . . . blaming McFarland Johnson for not seeing the high risks that we’ve had in the two bids, which I thought were semi-unfair,” Ward 10 Councilor Dan St. Hilaire said at that February meeting. “Because I thought, ‘Who would expect paying three times the price to lay a piece of brick? Who would predict that?’ ”
Front and center
These engineers calculate the amount of concrete needed to rehab a road like Route 3. They weigh the benefits of structural steel girders versus stressed concrete girders on the new Sewalls Falls Bridge. Their work is literally at the drawing board.
Then McFarland Johnson was thrust onto center stage when certain risk factors, like nighttime construction and small work zones, yielded bids too high and turnout too low for the Main Street construction job. The firm has weathered questioning from bewildered councilors with public poise.
“I can only tell you we’re a professional company,” McCarthy said in an interview. “We’ve done this for a long time. I’ve done this for a long time. I think we have to stand by our experience and our reputation.”
Now, he’s working an alternative bid process with the city, hoping to find a contractor on a third try. With 25 years of experience and a long history in Concord, McCarthy said this project has been an anomaly.
“I’ve never been in a position like this on a contract,” he said.
No complaints, no regrets
The city’s request for engineering consultants listed upcoming capital projects on which the firms could be expected to work, including the Main Street redesign, improvements to Loudon Road and the Langley Parkway extension. The fee is negotiated project by project, and the city can divide work between the two as needed.
It’s not uncommon for state, city and town governments to hire outside firms to draw plans for major projects. At CMA Engineers, vice president Bill Straub said most of the work comes from the public sector. And Concord has the resources for the projects that keep firms like his in business.
“On a scale of one to five, one being a small town without knowledge or technical abilities for projects, and five being superb, I would say Concord is right up there,” Straub said.
At McFarland Johnson, McCarthy said Concord is “a very intelligent client.”
“Even right now, I’m glad to be working on (the Main Street project),” McCarthy said. “It’s a great project, and I think in the end everyone’s going to realize that it’s going to be worth all the time and all the effort and even the issues.
“I have no regrets. I have no issues with it.”
The three-year contracts with both firms end in September 2015, though the city could renew either or both for three subsequent years. More than halfway through that current agreement, Roberge said he can’t predict whether the city would renew those contracts yet.
“We have a close relationship with all of them,” Roberge said. “There’s nothing that I would be concerned with. We’re quite a ways away from (rebidding the contract).”
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)