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Bridge Out 

A look at the comically delayed Fourth Street drawbridge project, and how the city's Byzantine contracting system costs millions

Wednesday, Jun 22 2005
In Kentucky, you can buy a type of iron ore-rich gravel useful for radiation-resistant concrete vaults. In San Francisco, this type of concrete is being used to shield the city from the latest in a series of blunders, miscalculations, cost overruns, delays, and endless legal hagglings that have postponed completion of the rebuilt Fourth Street light-rail drawbridge by nearly a year, and thus delayed the opening of the Third Street light-rail route connecting South of Market to the Bayview neighborhood.

That is: As currently configured, the drawbridge won't raise and lower, says Curtis Mitchell, partner in Mitchell Engineering, the firm whose joint venture with the Japanese construction giant Obayashi Corp. is reconfiguring the bridge for rail traffic. "One of their [the city's] design blunders was that the counterweight is too light," Mitchell says, and as now designed, there's no room for a more massive blob of concrete that would balance the span as it lifts for boats passing through the China Basin Channel.

The answer: "We're shipping special heavy concrete aggregate from Kentucky with iron ore in it. It raises the price [of concrete] from $150 a cubic yard to $1,000 a cubic yard," Mitchell says. "That's a pretty straightforward mathematical blunder on their part."

The case of the too-light counterweight is one of a litany of mistakes, miscommunications, and misunderstandings that have turned the bridge project into a legal dispute that in turn has transformed into a public political fight.

The City Attorney's Office is now considering whether to fine Mitchell-Obayashi $750,000 for delayed work in April and to keep the clock running on $25,000 per day in additional fines.

Mitchell and his partner, Mike Silva, blame incompetent and arrogant city bureaucrats for delays and say it's absurd that they should be fined. They describe months of unreturned phone calls about design errors, an undisclosed city study about problems in the bridge's substructure, and a team of city engineers and lawyers so obsessed with preserving legal advantage that it's impossible to solve construction problems collaboratively. They say that if the City Attorney's Office follows through on its threat of fines, they'll quit the job and sue the city for $10 million.

To this end they've retained former mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez, whose law firm has made a specialty of confronting San Francisco bureaucracies, including the police, the school system, and now the city's public works contracting system. "It's a political city," says Silva, by way of explaining his decision to retain Gonzalez. "We need an attorney who knows what's going on in the city."

Last year, Gonzalez quit politics to form the law firm Gonzalez & Leigh. He says he agreed to take the Mitchell case because it "raises a larger issue with the city of -- you obviously have to go after fraud. But if you create a prevailing culture in the city where you have to put the contractor in the worst light, you're going to get situations where there's only one bid on projects, and where projects cost much more," Gonzalez says. "If that's what ends up happening, you'll not be able to rebuild Hetch Hetchy, and you'll not be able to rebuild these other projects that need rebuilding."

I think Gonzalez is on to something. San Francisco indeed suffers a horrid reputation among contractors, a problem that stands to cost the city vast sums of money.

Whether or not one believes Mitchell's argument that it was bamboozled by city bureaucrats, there's no denying the city's awful reputation with public works contractors. Many say San Francisco has such an inefficient and tangled system for bidding and managing public construction that they ignore city bid offerings, allowing the few contractors who will brave the cost and risk of dealing with the city to charge higher prices. The result? Millions of dollars in project cost overruns.

"The city does not have the best reputation as an organization to contract with," notes Greg Wagner, a policy analyst at San Francisco Policy and Urban Research, the advocacy think tank usually known by its acronym, SPUR. Wagner has just completed research on a study, to be published in July, describing faulty administration of the city's contracting system. "The rap on the city is that it's definitely a pain in the butt to bid with them, and people are certainly reluctant to bid on projects with the city," Wagner says. "I think you can safely say that there's a perception among a lot of people that it's difficult to work on contracts from beginning to end."

San Francisco's reputation as an incompetent and quarrelsome implementer of construction contracts is an expensive problem now; it may become a prohibitive cost as S.F. prepares to bid some $4 billion in contracts to rebuild the city's Hetch Hetchy water and electricity system.

"How many contractors aren't going to bid that work? They don't want to get involved in extended litigation, or threats of false claims, or other threats that have become symptomatic of working in San Francisco," says Mark Breslin, executive director of the Engineering & Utility Contractors Association, a group of Northern California contracting firms that bid on government projects. "I have major San Francisco-based contractors who are going and doing their work in Sacramento. That's not a function of convenience or market availability; that's cutting your losses and ignoring a major market because of its reputation."

Deputy City Attorney George Wong, who leads the legal team in charge of dealing with engineering and construction firms that work for the city, says it's his job to protect the city from firms that submit low bids on projects, then try to recoup their losses by submitting expensive change orders. He says the Mitchell-Obayashi venture is responsible for most of the delays on the Fourth Street Bridge project; in some cases, Wong suggests, the venture attempted to change project plans in ways that would pad payments to the contractors. "The city budget is not a public trough to give money to contractors who don't do their jobs properly," Wong says.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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