How Washington state awards highway projects studied

TACOMA — A much-hyped report on how to organize state highway megaprojects, released Wednesday, turned out to be light on criticisms and specific cost-cutting ideas.

However, the authors did make a potentially valuable suggestion: The state Department of Transportation (DOT) should occasionally use an alternative strategy that does not necessarily award contracts to the lowest bidder or even to a team that makes the strongest offer for design and schedule.

Instead, for certain projects, the state should choose a contractor based on track record, and then have the contractor collaborate with the state on engineering, before submitting a bid for DOT to accept or reject.

The approach might have helped in the case of the Highway 520 pontoons, four of which cracked when the first batch was cast at Grays Harbor last year.

The study is DOT’s reaction to political heat, after news in February about how state-design errors caused cost overruns in pontoon construction — now estimated to total more than $200 million for repairs, redesign and delays.

The report was also meant to encompass the Highway 99 tunnel project and the proposed Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing.

It notes that the DOT’s bridge division assumed full design of the pontoons, instead of handing design and financial risks to contractors.

The 17-page report cites a “void of direction” on 520, as documented by an earlier expert review. Quality control was inadequate, and the pontoon design should have been reviewed by experts, said John Njord, former Utah DOT director and the study’s co-author.

He and Ron Paananen, a former Washington DOT project leader, discussed their findings last week before a legislative committee at Tacoma City Hall.

Conspicuously missing were tips on how to reduce the physical size, the permitting hurdles or the overhead costs to deliver future projects.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, asked Njord if he studied “basically, what I would call overdesign.”

Njord answered by restating King’s question, calling it a challenge for the state. King, the Senate Transportation Committee co-chairman, said he still wants follow-up briefings about cost-cutting.

The report originally was to be written by Paananen — prompting some lawmakers to complain that Paananen, who now works for international engineering firm CH2M Hill, couldn’t effectively scrutinize his former DOT colleagues.

New transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson added Njord, who did most of the talking Wednesday.

Travelers in Washington state — and a few lawmakers — have noticed how quickly and cheaply the state is capable of performing after a span of the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge collapsed in May.

A temporary span was erected within a month, and by September, a permanent concrete span was built, all below the $15 million estimate. Njord called it “a home run for the state of Washington” after the meeting.

Wednesday’s report will cost taxpayers just over $181,000, below the $475,000 maximum in the contract.

The report cites interviews with 31 officials or engineers and 17 documents. Rather than investigative in tone, it gives management suggestions and an overview of contracting methods — the sort of information available in journals such as Engineering News-Record or Infrastructure Investor.

The suggested “General Contractor-Construction Management” method of contracting, which relies on early collaboration, is commonly used in high-rise building construction, as well as for Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar and Elliott Bay Seawall, said Paananen.

The goal is to save time, tackle issues such traffic detours ahead of time and to make contractors aware of a project’s risks, before a price is set.

The role of chief engineer should be strengthened to take direct control of megaprojects, the report says.

The state DOT recently addressed this critique by handing the job to Linea Laird, who successfully managed the 2007 Tacoma Narrows Bridge project and recently headed the Highway 99 tunnel team.

A new position of deputy chief engineer has been filled by Keith Metcalf, an engineer from the Skagit Bridge emergency-design team.

The authors didn’t examine the Columbia River Crossing, because the Legislature this spring cut off Washington state’s share of funding, said Peterson.

In recent weeks, Oregon has been considering whether it can unilaterally build and own the bridge, to include light rail.