City officials look for answers on the Main Street project
Ever since a second attempt to bid construction for the Main Street project produced only a single offer again, the city and its consultant engineers have been trying to answer one question.
What went wrong?
More than a week after the $13.83 million proposal came in for what was supposed to be a $7.1 million construction project, City Engineer Ed Roberge doesn’t have an answer.
“I wish it were clear to say, ‘Boy, they blew this one item,’ ” Roberge said Friday. “There’s too many variables and too many items. It’s going to take us some time to fully understand.”
In comparing the bid from general contractor E.D. Swett Inc. and the city’s estimate from consultant engineering firm McFarland Johnson, it’s clear Roberge is right.
The nearly $7 million difference between the two adds up across the board, as the city underestimated the cost of 117 of the bid’s 156 line items. Some of the differences are as small as $72.50. Others are as great as $990,000.
“We’ve got a ways to go before we can pin down any particular item as to why there’s such a difference,” Roberge said.
Roberge and other staff members have gone back to the engineers who came up with their original estimate, and they plan to discuss their analysis and possible alternatives at the city council meeting Feb. 10.
“We certainly haven’t seen anything like this in the past, nor have we seen the lack of interest or the number of bidders in the past either,” Roberge said. “That goes for both the city and the consultant team.”
Engineer Gene McCarthy of McFarland Johnson said his firm’s estimated prices come from a variety of sources – predominantly a database of standard pricing created by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, based on the state’s own bids and construction costs. The engineers use that information, along with resources from other work completed in the region, to predict the project’s cost.
Now, as the engineers pick those predictions apart, Mayor Jim Bouley said his questions go beyond the basic numbers.
“I had questions like, ‘Why do we only have one bidder?’ ” Bouley said. “Why did other companies choose not to bid? . . . Why did they have different numbers? Is it labor? Is it materials? What are the cost factors that double our budget? I want to know from (the Federal Highway Administration), where do they stand? What does this mean for the project?
“That’s just half of the questions.”
Carlos Baia, deputy city manager for development, echoed the mayor’s questions in an a statement sent to city email subscribers this week.
“The questions you have are probably the same as ours,” Baia said. “First, why aren’t more contractors bidding? Second, why is there such disparity in costs between the project estimate and the contractor bid? Please know that our staff is working diligently to answer these questions.”
Frank Merrill, who owns Pembroke-based F.L. Merrill Construction, said he was surprised the city and its engineers didn’t significantly adjust the project when they put it up to bid for a second time in November. During the first request for bids, Merrill’s company submitted the lone offer to the city. At that time, the estimated construction cost for the Main Street redesign was $6.2 million, and the city rejected Merrill’s bid for $12.23 million.
“I was surprised, yes, that they didn’t adjust the estimate up or they didn’t shrink the job a little bit,” Merrill said.
Merrill attended a required pre-bid meeting when the city reissued its request, but decided not to bid as a general contractor again. The construction would tie up his crews for too long, Merrill said, and he didn’t want to put resources into bidding for a project the city didn’t have the money to do.
The project is also “a very political job,” Merrill said.
“This one, obviously it’s very busy on Main Street, so there’s a lot of things underground, a lot of people to deal with, a lot of businesses,” he said. “It makes the production slower, and it makes it cost more.”
Based on the number of contractors who attended pre-bid meetings, the city could have received up to six proposals for the work. The location of the construction – a busy downtown corridor – inhibited some of those general contractors, said Joe Fadden, an estimator at Manchester-based Northern Peabody LLC. His company submitted an estimate for the snowmelt system to some of the general contractors interested in the work.
“A lot of them didn’t bid it because it was a very difficult project, and it got more difficult with all the individual little breakouts and things in the schedule,” Fadden said. “You were taking a lot of risks bidding that project.”
Lesa Girard, a regional sales representative for Neenah Foundry in Wisconsin, said her company also submitted estimates to subcontract much of the cast iron work in the design, such as manhole covers.
The city’s pre-bid meetings were helpful in answering questions about a complicated design, she said.
“With a project that size, you can’t cover everything,” she said. “I thought that they were very well prepared.”
Some of those preparations paid off. On a few line items, the price estimate from McFarland Johnson was identical to the contractor’s price. On a few more, the city predicted an item would be more expensive than what E.D. Swett asked.
But on most, the estimates were off – even on those 20 manhole covers and frames requested by the city. Those were estimated to cost $8,000, but the bid lists them at $15,400. That’s a difference of $7,400 – though it’s a small number in comparison to other line items.
For example, one type of concrete sidewalk requested by the city was supposed to cost $40 per unit, or $396,000 total. The bid came in almost $1 million over the estimate at $140 per unit, or $1,386,000.
“The biggest challenge for us right now is we only have one bid,” McCarthy said. “It’s one contractor’s view of the project and how they plan to construct it.”
That contractor’s plans could have affected estimates for other line items, such as traffic maintenance during construction or the process of setting up and taking down the work site.
The city wrote $100,000 into the budget for the cost of maintaining traffic, which includes moving parking pay stations, posting work signs and assuring pedestrian access on both sides of the street at all times. The contractor asked $600,000 for that service.
Setting up and breaking down the work site was expected to cost $200,000. In the bid, that is listed at $1 million.
“We’re using unit prices that are typical for that kind of work, what we’ve seen,” McCarthy said. “We’re basing it on history, and there’s no way for me to really evaluate why (the contractor E.D. Swett) priced it that way.”
Representatives from E.D. Swett Inc. did not respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, Roberge said the $4.71 million federal grant that is supposed to help pay for the project is safe. The city has been meeting with staff members of the Federal Highway Administration to talk about Concord’s options going forward, he said.
“There’s nothing that indicates we’re at threat of losing that grant funding,” he said.
Construction was scheduled to begin this spring. Now was the time city staff expected to be considering several viable bids ahead of that start date. Instead, they’re considering the future of the entire project.
“We’re running a mile a minute here,” Roberge said.
(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)