Legislation pushes IR bridge ahead

State legislation up for approval this week would allow state transportation officials to begin work on the much-anticipated Indian River Inlet Bridge project that was delayed again in late April.

A portion of the 2008-fiscal-year bond bill, which is expected to be left untouched from its current draft and approved by tomorrow, clears up ambiguity about how to award a bid to design and build the bridge almost simultaneously. The process has been used on roughly a dozen projects statewide but never contested until two months ago, when transportation officials planned to award a bid for the highly-contentious bridge project.

Language in the 2006 bond bill that authorized the project did not explain how to award a contract through the design-build process, nor did it point out appropriate legislation governing the process, according to the Delaware Attorney General’s office.

Delaware Department of Transportation officials cited that fogginess in April when they tossed the bids — including that of an apparent winning bidder — fearing a lawsuit. Union officials had expressed concern over the awarding of the contract to an out-of-state contractor who would not be required to hire unionized workers.

The new language clears up how officials should grade bids in technical and price categories, making it easier for officials to choose a winning bid without fearing legal action, DelDOT spokesman Darrel Cole said this week. Cole said the department plans to act soon, but officials have not yet determined when to ask for another round of bids.

“We’re going to be developing a path forward on the entire project here in the next couple weeks,” Cole said Tuesday. “After June 30, we’ll sink our teeth into it a little more. Right now we don’t have a firm grasp on timeline.”

Delaware’s Department of Transportation had estimated completion of the potentially unsafe bridge by 2010. The delay will likely set the completion date back another year, to 2011. A state engineer said in a presentation in July of last year that the bridge could become unsafe as early as 2011 to 2013.

DelDOT tossed the bids in April, just weeks after preliminarily accepting the bid of a Tampa contractor but after a competing bidder formally challenged that decision. Many believed that PCL Civil Contractors Inc., the apparent winner, which submitted a bid of $124.9 million, would not use Delaware union labor, prompting a backlash from union leaders.

Also, some questioned why the state did not choose a competing bid from a union contractor — Kiewet and Bilfinger/Berger — that was $800,000 less expensive than the PCL bid. Kiewet had already formally challenged the bidding process before DelDOT tossed the bids, perhaps heightening fears about a potential lawsuit that many believed would hold up the process longer.

The wording in this year’s bond bill legislation apparently came from SB 148, a bill that came out of a state Senate committee on June 21.

Karen McGrath, executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick area Chamber of Commerce, commented on the bill before it was added to budget language this week.

“Of all the bills that could impact business … this is the single-most important piece of legislation for our area this session,” McGrath said. “Our economy and safety are dependent upon the old bridge remaining safe and crossable until the new one is built. The unfortunate ‘ball-dropping’ with the bids earlier this year probably cost us a good nine months that we may not have.”

The Indian River Bridge carries roughly 16,000 to 18,000 cars daily, according to DelDOT. Without the bridge, the travel from Bethany Beach to Lewes by car would be twice as long for visitors, residents and emergency responders transporting patients from Delaware’s South Coastal area to Beebe Medical Center in Lewes.

Dennis O’Shea, DelDOT’s assistant director of design, said at a July informational meeting last year that, if not replaced, the bridge could become unsafe as early as 2011. State officials have promised to close the bridge if it becomes unsafe, but such a move would carry dire consequences for patients in need of emergency care and area businesses that rely on tourist dollars.

According to DelDOT, “severe scouring” for more than four decades has resulted in an inlet depth of greater than 100 feet, a nearly 400 percent increase from 1965.

The scouring was first recorded in the 1980s by officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who, with DelDOT, have been monitoring it ever since.

As a temporary fix and using millions of dollars, DelDOT has used large stones to protect the bridge’s foundation from further erosion, according an article published by O’Shea on the project’s Web site. To learn more, visit www.irib.deldot.gov on the Internet.