By Michele Dargan, Special to Civic Association News. When the new Flagler Memorial [North] Bridge fully opens to four lanes of traffic, currently forecast for February 2017, the final price tag will be $105 million – that’s $11 million over the original contract price.
That seemed like a big jump in taxpayer costs, so the Civic Association decided to investigate.
During the first two years of construction, the contractor was forced to stop work on the new bridge when vibrations from the drilling caused stabilization issues to the old bridge, while it was open to traffic.
The majority of the additional cost is from PCL Civil Constructors having to stop work on the critical portions of the new span while safety issues with the old bridge were fixed, said Geoffrey Parker, senior engineer with New Millennium Engineering, the company that’s supervising the project for the Florida Department of Transportation.
“The department made a commitment to the town to make sure traffic was maintained on the old bridge, while still ensuring safety to the traveling public,” Mr. Parker said. “They were able to honor that commitment, at least until it was a convenient point when the season was over. That’s why the contractor was directed to stop work until the old bridge could be stabilized and the inconvenience to the town could be minimized.”
The most critical part of the bridge is the bascule, which houses all the machinery, all the electrical and all the structural steel for the moveable part of the bridge, Mr. Parker said.
“Telling a contactor to stop working on the bascule and work elsewhere, you’re essentially stopping the contractor from working on what will keep him there the longest,” Mr. Parker said. “That’s why the contractor had to be compensated for being told to stop and to go elsewhere, but when all is said and done come back and resume work.”
Construction on the new bridge began in September 2012 with an original price tag of $94 million and a completion date of December 2014.
But the project hit road blocks in 2013 when drilling on the replacement bridge caused the old bridge to settle, throwing the movable spans out of alignment and making the bridge unsafe for traffic.
Emergency repairs in the summer of 2013 involved drilling micropiles around the four main piers and coupling them with large steel brackets to secure the old bridge’s foundation. The $9.4 million repair was completed in October 2013. Lane and weight restrictions were lifted on the old span.
PCL Civil Constructors resumed work on the middle portion of the foundation of the replacement bridge. But the drilling caused settling of the southeast main pier of the old bridge, pushing the movable spans out of alignment and causing the locking mechanism to fail. That forced a 10-day shutdown in November 2013.
DOT decided to close the old span for six months - from May 2014 to November 2014 - to allow PCL to complete work on the foundation of the new bridge. After PCL completed that work in July, another contractor secured the foundation of the old bridge and it reopened to traffic November 1, 2014.
“This was a major, heavy marine infrastructure type of project,” Mr. Parker said. “All the heavy equipment the contractor rented, he had to stop the rentals and rent them again when work was back on. He tried to be as economical and efficient as possible, but costs continued to mount every month.” Expensive rented barges and cranes stayed in place for months during the work stoppage.
If problems occur on a major infrastructure project, it’s not unusual for the cost to change, said Angel Gardner, public information officer for the Flagler Memorial Bridge Replacement Project.
“There isn’t all of a sudden an $11 million increase,” Ms. Gardner said. “As the contract goes along, costs will creep up in dealing with specific issues. The major issue was the settlement of the old bridge that had to be dealt with.”
One east and one west lane are scheduled to open on the replacement bridge by December 5. The entire bridge – two lanes in each direction - will open by the end of February or beginning of March, Mr. Parker said.
“We knew about what was going on physically in terms of the bridge settling and what the possible solutions were,” said Paul Brazil, the town’s director of public works. “DOT presented it to the town and City of West Palm Beach. In terms of the cost of additional work and the cost of the downtime, it was never shared with us because we weren’t part of the contract. It was a contract between DOT and PCL. It wouldn’t be appropriate to for us to be part of that conversation. I knew there was a change order. I knew it was going to cost money. I didn’t know the exact dollar figure.”
“We are very appreciative of FDOT’s efforts to move the bridge forward,” said Mayor Gail Coniglio. “The governor and the FDOT have demonstrated great teamwork in keeping the old bridge open, offering funding and expediting the construction schedule.”