Friday, May 04, 2012

TOP STORY >> Water contractor delays Graham Road widening

Leader staff writer

The relocation of water lines to make way for the widening of Graham Road is four months behind schedule and projected to cost about $63,000 more than the lowest bid that Jacksonville Waterworks accepted.

The original bid from CoBar Contracting, a North Little Rock company, was about $436,000. The project is expected to cost close to $499,000, said Jake Short, the water department’s new general manager.

He said that amount is 100 percent reimbursable to Jacksonville Waterworks. The state pays the department back for the relocation.

For decades, the Jackson-ville street plan and other area maps have shown a four-lane roadway connecting Hwy. 89 in Lonoke County to Hwy. 107 in Pulaski County. The $7 million widening of Graham to four lanes from Loop Road to Elm and Oak streets, a distance of about a mile, is part of that master plan. The project is 80 percent federally funded.

Work on moving the water lines began in October and was supposed to be done by Jan. 1, Short said.

The contracting company got its first extension — 43 days — when it failed to meet that deadline, he said.

Short said the contractor told the department the work was delayed by more than 30 days when they had difficulty getting materials. Another few days of delays were blamed on bad weather, Short said.

After the contractor didn’t meet a second deadline, the company was granted another extension — 48 days — for “more of the same” problems, Short said.

Monday was the most recent deadline and the contractor did not meet that one either.

Short said on Tuesday, “They’re progressing. I know that they’re out there working.”

He said the department would be meeting on Monday to discuss its next step, but didn’t immediately return a call from the Leader on Friday.

Short said, “I realize it’s been a disruption to businesses and residents of the area. As of today, I don’t have a completion day going forward. It’s top priority that it gets done ASAP. We’re monitoring their progress daily. We don’t want to disrupt people’s everyday lives. That’s not what we want to do and it’s been a disruption. We’re aware.”

City Engineer Jay Whisker said the contractor has passed a water pressure test. Next, he needs to pass a water quality test and then the connections can be made. At that point, the old water lines can be abandoned.

“We’re in the ending phase,” Whisker said. Last week he said there were several places where the lines were broken. But those have been fixed.

He also said the contractor has to lower a line at Cherry Street and Pulaski Drive becuase of a miscalculation on where it was.

Whisker said, “He’s dug it up from Loop all the way back down to Oak again. It looks terrible. It’s not like he dug terrible holes or anything, but you go ‘Are you kidding me, really, didn’t we just do this?’

“The contractor wants to leave because you know he’s got to be losing money. He’s got to be in this deep at this point. (He told me), ‘Look, this was a three-day deal for us.’ He’d been there a week and a half, two weeks, a little over two weeks at that point,” Whisker explained.

Mayor Gary Fletcher said, “It’s turning out to be probably far more expensive than if we had gotten a different bid, not just because of time overruns, but because of the stress and hardship it’s placed on everybody who drives up and down Graham Road and utilizes Graham Road.

“We’re fixing to take some stronger actions against the contractor because I see some safety concerns that need to be addressed. I’m fixing to issue an administrative order that there be some citations issued; that this job be done, be done in an expedient, professional and safe way,” the mayor said.

“Get those leaks fixed, get it covered up and get out of there. That’s what I want. That’s what we all want so the actual construction of a road can commence down there because that’s going to be an inconvenience too,” he said.

Whisker said the safety concerns were, “You’ve got to have fence around (a hole). These are all OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requirements. If you go so deep then you have to have a trench box or you have to do what they call benching, which means you have a plateau like every three feet. So you can climb out like stairs.”

Fletcher said he’ll have to fine the contractor because “our job is to promote the health, safety and welfare of our citizens. I don’t want to slow them down, but at the same time I can’t ignore that. My first job is to protect citizens even before making something convenient.

I can’t ignore safety in order to expedite something to make everyone happy. Generally, if there’s no pain there’s no change. They’ve been warned. We’ve got a problem but it would be compounded if someone gets hurt.”

The mayor said, “I don’t want to bad mouth people, but I’m just frustrated that this has went on way too long and for no reason. This has to be done and it has to be done now. This has not been a pleasant experience for any of us and it’s uncalled for. I expect better from my contractors.

“From the engineering that is supposed to be inspecting this, Garver (a Little Rock-based firm), I’m not happy there. This thing should have never been drug out this long. We’ve had a mild winter, so we can’t use that. Sometimes there are issues that we cannot control that prolong jobs. That is not an excuse here.

“Time is money. The longer you draw out a job the more money it costs you. If they did bid the job low, the best thing they could have done is got in there, do the job and get out of there rather than drag it out,” Fletcher said.

“I know what happens sometimes — I’m not saying it happened in this case — is that because they underbid the job so much they spend their other time on another job to try to make money and use the job they underbid as a filler job, which naturally drags it out. I don’t know. I just know I’m frustrated. I’m sick of it. I’m angry that people have been inconvenienced this long,” Fletcher said.

Whisker posed the question, “At this point, do you continue to stick with the guy who is almost at the end?”

The mayor said, “You can get mad at the guy, say OK we’re going to pull your contact or get someone else to finish the job. But the process there will drag it out even longer. And right now we’re trying to deal with two things, time and quality. We want it to work. What people are concerned about is the time issue. They want it closed up so they can proceed on.”

Whisker said, “Everything we do to (the contractor) makes him focus on us instead of the job. So the whole thing is a catch-22. The bottom line of it is it’s been the headache of the people there on Graham Road and that was not the intention at all.

“The intention of Graham Road is to improve the lives,” he continued.” The construction should be a little inconvenient. I think everybody understands a little inconvenient, but it’s become very inconvenient.”

There is little the city can do to help, both officials said.

Fletcher said, “The one thing that people just need to understand is that their inconvenience and their cries are not being ignored. We’re limited in what we can do, other than cry, holler, and fine (the contractor) for safety violations. We can make it harder on him to where it takes him more time, but we just want him out of there.”

Whisker said, “The problem becomes that we are separated by three or four degrees from this. The city gives 20 percent to this job, the federal government has its 80 percent share, they’re paying and we’re paying together for utility relocations.

“The utility hires a separate engineering company to do the relocation and they’re the ones that are watching the contractor. If I go on site, I can’t tell anybody to do anything. Technically in charge is the water company, but they’re relying on their engineers and they’re actually paying people to have people on site to make sure everything gets done and everything gets done in a timely manner,” Whisker said.

Fletcher said, “Like (Whisk-er) said we’re removed from this thing by several different layers. We can holler, we can cuss and fuss and everything else, but I’m not signing that guy’s check. Somebody else is and he needs to be the one holding these people accountable. He hasn’t been doing that, evidently.”

Both city officials agreed that the city only encountered minor issues with the relocation of other utilities.

The mayor said, “You’re going to have some glitches here and there. But I guess because this water thing is so big that they just pale. It’s like we didn’t have any problems.”

Aside from the water relocation, electricity relocation took the next longest. Whisker said that contractor was on Graham Road for just one week.

Some of these issues could go back to the bid process, Fletcher said.

“I am one for always doing bids. I believe in the bid process because we’re caretakers of public money. We’ve got to stretch our money in order to do everything we need to do with very limited funds. We just can’t make money grow on trees,” he said.

The mayor said, “This is a perfect example, sometimes, of when low bids are not going to be your best bids. The bid being so low could have created this problem. Cheap is not cheap sometimes. This is an example of why you need to look at all aspects when it comes to bidding.

“I don’t want to throw the water commission under the bus, but the truth of the matter is, this is true for all of us, this reminds us that there is more to giving out jobs, to giving out bids, than just low price. We need references and all that stuff.”

Jim Durham, director of administration, said the options the city has are to waive competitive bidding and take a single-source bid.

One example of a single-source bid is when the city went with Motorola for the update to its emergency communications system. The company is only one approved by the Arkansas Wireless Information Network and Jacksonville wanted to be part of that network.

Durham also said, “If you don’t take the low bid, there has to be, obviously, a justification for it.”

That justification could refer to references or previous experience with a company.