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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 or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

Legacy Comments12

I've yet to see any contract for any work involving streets , roads , bridges and sidewalks to be even close to the projections. You can look at any project before with only projections and after bidding reality it's a dream vs reality. Next you will no longer get many contractors bidding unless you break it down into smaller pieces because they do not want to expend capitol while waiting to get paid. The banks will not lend money unless you have money as collateral and saigned , sealed and delivered gauarentees. And Sail it has zero to do with political parties and everything to do with business solvency.

Take your 4 million, improve access for the disabled. Maybe add some BearCat only parking spaces so that parking enforcement will be able to use the vehicle while patrolling for expired meters. If that sounds a little nuts, remember this is the city that routinely rolls it's one and only, relatively new fire tower, costing about a million dollars, on medical calls in the central fire station district. Fall down and sprain your wrist on North Main St., here comes a 95 foot tower unit to splint your arm. The rescue taking 3 minutes longer to arrive isn't fast enough. Our one and only manned ladder in all of Concord and Penacook. Yeah, they know how to spend money wisely. Concord is full of examples of financial waste and mismanagement. One doesn't have to look far to find examples.

Yes, another example of semi-authority zealots or boys and their toys. In my town they have a huge ladder truck but no homes are over two stories. No one is belittling these public servants but you are correct, they all have to be in on the "action". One fireman or rescue worker could respond to the incidents you describe in a car.

Though this is way off topic from the article-- There are buildings that need the ladder truck- I used to live in one of them- We have many commercial and apartment buildings more than 2 stories tall. I do agree though that it is a waste of resources (gas and man power) to use the ladder truck for medical responses to 1 and 2 story buildings and especially when they are aware of the address because they go there frequently. In regard to the downtown project. I have never supported the project they dreamed up for downtown. It seems ill suited for the climate and needs of the citizens in Concord. What we do need is better downtown parking near the businesses and better maintenance of the sidewalks and crosswalks then is currently provided; better snow removal so that one can get from the car to the sidewalk and parking meter stations. We need entrances and sidewalks that are ADA approved and to make the downtown accessible to customers-- businesses need customers- not elegant sidewalks. We need a downtown that has affordable rents for the businesses to thrive- coming up with a fund that would help first time businesses get a downtown location would be a great use of funds- subsidize rents for the first two years of a business until they are on their feet and growing- we need a vibrant downtown first- then think about beautification extras.

democrats control concord with an iron fist - what did you expect - responsible frugal common sense policy? post 5 of the allowed 12 on 2/2

Frank Merrill answered the questions. He's a local business that's good sized, he knows the type of work. Being a downtown area with so many unknowns, and adding into it that it's most desirable to have it a nigh all adds up to more $$$.

The next disaster in the wings, other than Main Street, is cutting Loudon Road to two lanes with one center turn lane. If you think the traffic is backed up now, just wait until this fiasco hits. Bad idea!!

Let's be honest, this is an aesthetic project supported by the high minded, hoitty toitty, self congratulatory enlightenment crowd and Main Street businesses. But people are not going to come to Main Street if your prices are higher and you don't have a wide selection of merchandise. The elites of Concord want bragging rights and to feel a sense of pride in what they built, not really a reason to spend that extra $7 Million. Duprey wants hero status, he is a big fish in a small pond, period! His efforts on revitalizing Concord is not pure as the driven snow, it is about ego as well. Strange bedfellows....the liberal elite, Steve and business....what an unholy alliance.

Fed $ vs. Local $ The line item discrepancy for this project is Fed vs. Local funding. The cost to execute any highway project using Fed money will always far exceed the cost of the same project using local resources. There are technical studies online using real data that compare Fed vs. Local funded highway projects. The specifications for engineering, schedule, materials, and labor on a Fed project far exceeds the same project scope using local money. This differential will often scare off bidders and make the bid process less competitive. While the $ 4.71million handout may appear in print as easy money and a no-brainer, real numbers have proved otherwise. Maybe it's time to stop thinking out of the box and climb back into it.

Clearly the word is out and has been for some time. Dealing with Concord is a horror for both business and growth. That is why business stays away and they can't get more interest in taking on this project. The statement, “a very political job" says it all. Concord is held back by it's 'leadership' and has been for a long time.

In the realm of today's economy, does Concord want an updated Main Street or an updated emergency access to Concord Hospital by extending the Langley Parkway? If I were a resident of Concord I would weigh the two and vote for the hospital's request for better emergency access. I know the mayor wants what's popular, but is it whats best for the community?

If anything unforeseen happens...the company will eat the cost. I'll bet there is a great chance for that happening in an old city with 150 year old stuff in the ground.

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