By now, most readers have heard the story of the design-build project recently awarded by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). The award has caused an uproar and, by most accounts, led to the resignation of the Louisiana transportation secretary, Willam Ankner.
The award also was followed by a bid protest, which while unsuccessful, raised legitimate concerns over how the procurement was handled. Unfortunately, as a result of misinformation, the design-build baby might get thrown out with the procurement bath water, as legislators threaten to revisit the design-build enabling legislation.
The project, which involved the widening of I-10 in Baton Rouge, followed the federally mandated two-phase selection procedure, and award was to be made to the bidder offering the “best value.” The request for proposals (RFP) specified that no price over $60 million would be considered and that the construction duration designated by each bidder would be “valued” at $15,000 per day. Technical scores could range between 3,000 points for “acceptable” and 6,000 points for “exceptional.”
The DOTD awarded the project to Boh Bros. Construction Co. of New Orleans, which bid one penny under the maximum price of $60 million and a construction period of 1,064 days. The second and third bidders bid $55,028,000 and 775 days and $39,700,055.60 and 750 days, respectively. The technical scores for the three bidders were 5,625, 4,500 and 3,375.
The center of the controversy as far as bidders were concerned was the DOTD’s decision to rate Boh Bros.’ proposal higher because of its plan to totally remove and replace an existing 44-year-old bridge over the Kansas City Southern Railway tracks, while the two other bidders were simply adding two lanes and rehabilitating the existing bridge structure. The RFP included DOTD inspection reports of the bridge from as recently as 2007, which, according to one of the disappointed bidders, rated an eight out of 10 score and reflected that the bridge was in very good condition. Although the RFP outlined in detail how bidders’ designs for the railroad bridge would be evaluated, bidders were not instructed whether to add on or build a new one. Apparently, the DOTD left that decision to each team. Disappointed bidders charge that if the DOTD significantly favored full replacement over widening, the RFP should have mandated replacement so that all prices reflected the same scope of work.
Picking on the pick
The critique of this procurement, if any, should be focused on whether the DOTD’s decision to leave the repair/replacement decision up to bidders led to a process that was both fair to bidders and maximized competition for the benefit of the citizens of Louisiana.
Unfortunately, as the story began to circulate and legislator sound bites hit the online and television news, the focus was placed on the fact a contract was being awarded to the contractor that proposed the highest price—by a little under $5 million—and the longest construction duration. The project has created so much heat for the DOTD that interim Secretary for Transportation Sherri LeBas, who replaced Ankner, placed a hold on another design-build project that was slated for procurement pending further study.
As I wrote in a 2007 column involving public outcry in Delaware over a tentative award of a design-build project to the highest bidder, state highway departments must couple their efforts to attract innovative contracting with public education. This education must necessarily start with state legislators, who often are not adequately prepared to address complaints from their constituents when word gets out that the lowest bidder was not awarded a project. DOTD now has an uphill climb to save design-build contracting in Louisiana. Let’s hope the plug is not already pulled.