The success of a megaproject can come down to a single decision: choosing the right contractor.
As the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) prepares to embark on Phase II of a $5.5 billion rail extension to Dulles International Airport known as the Silver Line, five pre-qualified construction consortiums are facing an April 19 deadline to submit bids to build a transportation project largely financed by toll revenues from the Dulles Toll Road.
After receiving the bids next Friday, MWAA will announce the winner in May. Preliminary work is scheduled to begin later this year with a target of 2018 for completion of the Silver Line to Dulles and beyond into Virginia's Loudoun County. Phase I of the project, which extends D.C.'s Metro to Reston -- is scheduled to open later this year.
Some of the biggest names in the construction industry are competing for the Phase II contract, including Bechtel, the firm that is building Phase I. The lowest bidder wins Phase II.
“Before you go to a low bid, you do everything possible to make sure that you have a firm that is fully capable and fully understands the scope of work of the project involved,” said Patrick Nowakowski, the executive director of the Dulles Corridor Rail Project. “We don’t want to have firms leading the effort… who’ve never undertaken a megaproject.”
Nowakowski says using the low-bid procurement procedure ensures the lowest possible price for Fairfax and Loudoun County taxpayers and the toll road users.
“It’s all about price,” Nowakowski said.
Once the contractor teams’ individual design proposals met the standards established in MWAA’s design schematics, the lowest bid became the only factor in deciding who will win the contract. Therefore, a bidding contractor with a superior design receives no advantage in the bidding process. But Nowakowski says his office has been meeting with the competing contractor teams for months to ensure all the design proposals are sound.
“That’s where the confidence level comes in, the amount of time we have spent working with them,” Nowakowski said. “[We] make sure that the designs they produce meet the minimum standards that [we’ve] established in a specifications.”
Critics say low bid invites trouble
Any number of issues can push a megaproject over budget, but the low-bid procurement process is particularly troublesome, critics say, because it entices a contractor to submit an artificially low bid with the intention of requesting change orders to drive up a project’s final cost, paid for by the project’s owner and into the contractor’s pockets. In the case of the Silver Line, the owner is MWAA.
“The procurement on Phase II is not being done in an optimal way,” said Brian Petruska, an attorney at the Laborers International Union of North America, one of the unions that supplied workers to build Phase I of the Silver Line. “For a contractor the number one goal is to get the project.”
Change orders usually occur in one of three ways: the project owner requests the change and then pays the contractor to include it; an unexpected problem arises in the construction process requiring a change for the project to proceed safely; or the contractor requests a change order from the owner. In the latter case, MWAA would have to approve any change orders that are requested by the general contractor.
“We've looked at projects such as the Wilson Bridge and the Springfield interchange where change orders were approved because the price of steel went up. You would think the contractor should factor in potential increases in the price of steel, so when they make the bid they take the risk,” said Petruska, who said MWAA should have chosen a bidding process that grades on both design and price.
MWAA insists its contract documents and oversight procedures will prevent unnecessary change orders and, therefore, stick to the Silver Line’s budget.
“I worry about change orders from the day I sign the contract to the day I end it,” Nowakowski said. “It’s not a function of the low-bid procedure. It’s a function of how well the contract documents were written and how well you manage the project from the day you start to the day you finish.”
The higher the Silver Line price, the higher the tolls on the Dulles Toll Road
Virginia’s approval of an additional $300 million in Silver Line funding lightened the burden on Dulles Toll Road users to finance the $2.7 billion Phase II extension. Before the Commonwealth approved new funding, toll revenues were scheduled to cover 75 percent of Phase II’s costs. That cost has been reduced to 64 percent, according to an MWAA spokeswoman-- as long as Fairfax and Loudoun Counties continue to fund the $400 million needed to build parking garages and a rail station at the planned Rt. 28 stop.
If Phase II’s construction goes over budget, toll road users may be asked to make up the difference, according to Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton.
Connaughton says it will be up to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to make sure only legitimate change orders are approved for Phase II of the Silver Line.
“Any price escalation is passed almost directly onto the toll road users, and the toll road users are already bearing a very large brunt of the cost of this project,” Connaughton said.
Change orders and bloated project budgets
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has a mixed record in keeping its projects on budget. While MWAA officials have praised the contractor and union workforce for keeping Phase I of the Silver Line on time and on budget, the Dulles Main Terminal Automated People Mover Station will receive no such praise.
The Automated People Mover Station, which provides a rail and pedestrian link between the main terminal and midfield concourses at Dulles Airport, was awarded by MWAA to the contractor Turner Construction Co.* at the low-bid price of $184 million. After 82 change orders were approved, the project finished at $388 million, an increase of $204 million from the original low bid, according to sources familiar with an internal MWAA audit.
The audit also found MWAA staff approved certain increases without documentation and without written contractual obligation to do so, sources said.
While the People Mover Station may provide an egregious example of a project’s costs soaring out of control, it serves a caution that even when government agencies sign a contract with established construction industry giants, things can go very wrong. That is why, Nowakowski said, the Silver Line’s project management team will exercise strict oversight.
“We’ve got some of the five best teams in the world competing” for the contract, he said. “The taxpayers can believe that we’ve done everything that we can to get the best possible price.”
The Springfield Interchange (Archer Western) and the Silver Spring Transit Center (Foulger Pratt) provide two widely publicized examples of projects that went well over budget despite having major construction firms serving as general contractors. Archer Western is leading one of the five construction consortiums that will bid of Phase II of the Silver Line.
In addition to Archer Western Contractors, the other construction consortiums competing to build Phase II are led by Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., Skanska USA, Clark Construction Group, and Fluor Enterprises Inc.
Construction industry warns against pointing fingers
Representatives of the construction industry say it is harder to determine what actually went wrong than to simply assign blame when megaproject encounters budget or construction problems.
“A newspaper or a radio show or anybody can spout off and say there was a problem on a job and they name the contractor or the subcontractor,” said Patrick Dean, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Virginia. “Typically they don’t get into the details because that news is old by the time anything is figured out.”
Dean says the idea contractors pocket huge sums off excessive change orders is “a fallacy.”
“It’s not like contractors are going to make a lot of money on change orders. A change order increases their contract but they are a hassle. You have to negotiate them, sometimes you fight over them. You may have to rework something or change your schedule,” said Dean, who said some change orders are requested not for profit but to make projects more durable to reduce future maintenance costs.
Regardless of whether MWAA or the general contractor will pay for any change orders approved during Phase II of the Silver Line, the additional costs may ultimately fall on drivers on the Dulles Toll Road.
Virginia Transportation Sec. Connaughton, a critic of MWAA’s past performance, said the agency must run this project well. “Additional costs not only delay the project but obviously cause it to spiral out of control with price,” Connaughton said.
This is the first of a two-part series on construction of Phase II of the Silver Line to Dulles.
*This post originally listed the contractor as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. They are the architects, not the contractor.