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Delays to Cost Bridge Project $11M

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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The good news: A Mississippi River bridge painting project that was funded in 2009 and set to be completed in 2011 is finally about to begin.

The bad news: The delays will add more than 40 percent to the project’s cost.

 Eads Bridge

 Wikimedia Commons / William Rosmus

Metro St. Louis, which owns the bridge structure below the vehicle deck, was accused of shutting out a non-union contractor.

That was the bottom line Tuesday (May 22) as federal, Missouri, Illinois and local officials gathered at the historic Eads Bridge in St. Louis to kick off a rehabilitation project that has lost several years and more than $10 million to labor and bidding disputes.

Shovel Ready—or Not

The historic landmark, completed in 1874, was one of many so-called “shovel-ready” projects approved years ago for federal funding under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA).

The first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, the massive structure is 6,442 feet long and 46 feet wide and rises 88 feet over the water.

Metro St. Louis, the transit agency that owns all of the bridge structure below the vehicle deck, got the green light for the rehabilitation in July 2009, and work was supposed to begin then.

The project includes replacing support steel that dates to the 1920s, blasting and painting the entire superstructure, and upgrading the entire track system for the light rail network known as MetroLink.

In 2009, the Federal Transit Administration called the rehabilitation a two-year, $25 million project.

On Tuesday, it became a three-year, $36 million project.

Labor Dispute

The interval was consumed in part by a bitter dispute between Illinois and Missouri labor councils over the project’s labor agreement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Monday (May 21) after analyzing documents in the case.

“This issue revolves around a disagreement between the Illinois and Missouri building and construction trades councils about which labor agreement to use to govern any contract we would approve for the Eads Bridge,” then-Metro Board Chairman Vincent Schoemehl told board members in an Oct. 7 email, according to the newspaper.

 A June 2010 photo shows paint peeling from the 138-year-old Eads Bridge.

 Photos: Metro St. Louis

A June 2010 photo shows paint peeling from the 138-year-old Eads Bridge. Federal stimulus money for the then-shovel-ready project was approved in 2009, but the work never began.

“Several commissioners have been working on this, and I have done everything I can think of to find a mutually acceptable way to move forward,” he wrote. “I believe we have to proceed with this project for the fiduciary health of the agency and the safety of the community.”

The email followed a warning letter in September from the FTA over the project’s continual delays.

Eventually, the transit agency decided to use the National Maintenance Agreement, a project-labor agreement that had been ratified by international unions, the Post-Dispatch said.

But there were other problems.

New Bidding

The project had to be rebid after the initial round of bids came in far above Metro’s initial estimates. Metro officials said their consultants had wildly underestimated the cost of the project’s protective coatings and containment, the newspaper reported.

Others took a different view, however. The decision to rebid rankled Gail Svoboda, president of Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. of Prior Lake, MN, whose $33.6 million bid was the low bid the first time around, in December 2010. Svoboda’s company was the only open shop among the first round of bidders.

 The bridge’s arched design—as well as its corrosion and dilapidated paint—are evident in a 2010 photo.
The bridge’s arched design—as well as its corrosion and dilapidated paint—are evident in a 2010 photo.

Svoboda told the Post-Dispatch that the bid process had left him “very upset” but that fighting it would have been an “uphill battle.” He did not bid the second time around, saying he would not do so “where a project-labor agreement is a condition of bidding a job,” the newspaper reported.

Whistleblower Suit

Svoboda said it was “obvious” that his non-union status had worked against him on the project.

Metro project manager Eric Fields agreed. In a suit unsealed in April, Fields accused his agency of illegally rejecting Svoboda’s bid because it came from an open shop, the Post-Dispatch reported.

 Project manager Eric Fields inspects the bridge in April 2010.
Project manager Eric Fields inspects the bridge in April 2010. Fields filed a whistleblower suit, later withdrawn, that accused his agency of illegally rejecting a rehabilitation bid from a non-union contractor.

Fields withdrew his suit after the local U.S. Attorney declined to join the action, the newspaper said.

After the second round of bidding, officials awarded a $36.3 million contract to St. Louis Bridge Company (named for the original builder of the bridge), of Arnold, MO. Other contractors include Thomas Industrial Coatings, of Pevely, MO; KTA-Tator Inc., of Pittsburgh; ABNA Engineering Inc., of St. Louis; and K. Bates Steel Services, of St. Louis.

Bridge of Firsts

Fourteen men perished in the seven-year, $7 million effort to build the Eads Bridge, which was constructed to link St. Louis with the burgeoning national railroad network to the East.

The Eads was the world´s first alloy steel bridge; the first to use tubular cord members; and the first to depend entirely upon the use of the cantilever in the building of the superstructure. Its piers were sunk to unprecedented depths.

James Buchanan Eads, a self-educated engineer who worked for the original St. Louis Bridge Company, personally made several dives to study the river’s currents in designing the structure.

“Keeping this essential bridge safe and in good working order is not a luxury; it’s a necessity,” Deputy FTA Administrator Therese McMillan said at Tuesday’s kickoff.

“All across America, the infrastructure we depend on, like this bridge, is in need of modernization and repairs. We must protect and preserve all our existing transportation assets—bridges, highways, transit systems, and more—so that future generations enjoy safe, reliable transportation wherever they live and work.”

   

Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; Air abrasive blast cleaning; Bridges; Corrosion; Industrial Contractors; Painters; Steel

Comment from shane hirvi, (5/23/2012, 8:32 AM)

It is a sad state of affairs when one of the best and brightest contractors in the business are black balled out of a contract because they aren't a union outfit. I worked for Gail several years back and got to see first hand what a first class organization Abhe & Svobda Inc. is. They pay good wages, have excellent benefits for all thier employees, and have some of the most hard working and dedicated employees. Since I worked for Gail I've use them as a measuring stick against ever contractor I have seen--and none have measured up. I feel sorry for the tax paying men and women of St. Louis who have to live with the extra cost of black balling an industry leader. Shame...


Comment from Mike Van Kleeck, (5/23/2012, 11:57 AM)

I'm sure they are great contractors but why wouldn't they be competitive with a labor agreement job were it would be an even playing field?


Comment from shane hirvi, (5/23/2012, 12:33 PM)

It isn't my place to comment on what motivates any particular legal entity when it comes to how they choose to conduct their affairs. I will say that Svoboda's bid was 33.6 million and the contract was awarded at 36.3 million they are clearly competitive and had a pretty clear understanding of what the work was going to cost. This is a federal job and I'm sure it has all of the prevailing wage, certified payroll and any other davis-bacon type requirements so I really just don't get your "even playing field" comment. Seems to me if a contractor follows all of the rules then they are on a level playing field--I guess that's not good enough for some people.


Comment from Mike McCloud, (5/24/2012, 8:08 AM)

It is not an even playing field if you have to bring in outside union employees that are never part of a company team. In my experience, the outside union employees will just slow a project down as they don't care about the company one bit. Svobda should be pissed.


Comment from shane hirvi, (5/24/2012, 11:29 AM)

I agree he should be very pissed.


Comment from Gail Svoboda, (5/25/2012, 8:00 AM)

Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. has participated in Project Labor Agreements in the past where we negotiated the agreements with the unions ourselves. The Eads Bridge Project was rebid with an agreement that was already negotiated between the Owner and the Union.I strongly believe that the Owner has no business sticking its nose into the affairs of the union or of the contractor. The Owner's responsibility is to protect the coffers of the taxpaying citizens by making sure they get the work done properly at the best price, and they have no business interjecting themselves into the labor negotiating process. One of the most often cited arguments that union-leaning owners cite for using Project Labor Agreements is that they promote "harmony" among the trades. In my 43 years of being in this business, I have never had disharmony among my employees, whether we worked under a Project Labor Agreement or worked open shop.In all instances, however, our employees and I had the choice to decide whether we wanted our company to participate in a PLA or do the project open shop. Had Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. been awarded this project when it was first bid and made a decision to pursue a PLA, I would have sat down with the heads of the various unions, and I would have demanded that we jointly work out all of the issues that the unions have been arguing about on this project for the past year or more in 48 hours, and would have let them know in no uncertain terms that if we could not work those issues out quickly, we would begin work immediately without union agreements and would perform the whole project open shop rather than be involved in a bunch of arguing between the trades about jurisdictional disputes or disputes about which state's union, Missouri or Illinois, was going to perform the work. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". Requiring PLA's tips the balance of power too precariously in favor of labor and against the contractor. Throw an owner into the mix that is afraid of his own shadow and you have the kind of debacle that is being played out on the Eads Bridge.


Comment from Mike McCloud, (5/25/2012, 8:30 AM)

Mr. Svoboda, you should run for the presidency!


Comment from John Courtien, (5/25/2012, 10:11 AM)

The use of a Project Labor Agreement can provide structure and stability to large construction projects. PLAs also help ensure compliance with laws and regulations governing workplace safety and health, equal employment opportunity and labor and employment standards. The coordination achieved through PLAs can significantly enhance the economy and efficiency of Federal Construction projects. As Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said, "Project Labor Agreements are a win-win; they benefit businesses, workers and taxpayers. I've seen the track record in cities like Los Angeles -- high quality work on projects done on time, on budget and good job and training opportunities that strengthen our communities." I don't think we need to feel sorry for Abhe & Svoboda, they made a business decision to not participate in the this project. The owner has every right to stick their nose into what is to be required, they are after all the owner! and it's a proven statistical fact (with studies to prove it)that union labor will bring this project in within budget, thereby protecting the taxpaying citizens. So Mike - what is your experience with unions? where are your facts to back your ridiculous statement? and what makes you think it will be outside union labor? Unions in both states have qualified riggers, blasters & painters. So I will close with this. Lets not blame the Union, the PLA, the Owner, etc, etc. Abhe had a choice, they choose to stay non-union. Get over it and move on!


Comment from jesse chasteen, (5/25/2012, 11:37 AM)

I have worked both open and closed shops over the years. Point to ponder..If you slice a pie into too many pieces will anyone walk away happy?


Comment from shane hirvi, (5/25/2012, 11:50 AM)

A little bit of pecan pie always makes me happy.


Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (5/29/2012, 9:07 AM)

I'm still puzzled by the headline. "Delays" didn't add $11M to the project. The original $25M figure was pulled out of a prebid consultant estimate. It was never a real cost. The original low bid was $33.6M, and the final price was $36.3M, after the low bidder refused to rebid. A better headline would be "Labor practices dispute costs owner $2.7M"


Comment from Gerald Burbank, (5/30/2012, 7:42 AM)

The difference between the original bid submitted by ASI and the successful contractor was $2.7 mil. The added costs to the tax payer were likely the result of the local contractors and the unions protesting to the owner to prevent an open shop contractor from performing the work. I worked for union contractors in the St. Louis area for over 25 years with union contractors on both sides of the river. For the record, I am pro-union. I started in the business as a card carrying union painter, before becoming an estimator/project manager. I am currently working for ASI on a large project where we are working under a PLA, and have experienced no jurisdictional disputes or problems with the unions. We treat our people with respect, we pay them as well or better than any union contractor, and we treat them fairly. In the case of the Eads Bridge, I believe that Gail made the right decision. In my opinion, to enter into this contract once the relationships have been poisoned by the owner's interference would have been foolish. The owner's actions would have served to empower labor to pressure the contractor for unwarranted labor concessions, and opened the door to feather bedding (a practice that has weakened the unions position over the last 50 years). By the way, the original bids submitted by the local contractors were substantially higher. At least Gail kept these people from gouging the owner the second time around.


Comment from James Johnson, (5/30/2012, 9:28 AM)

Tom - You are absolutely correct. If the owner was going to insist this be a union project they should have said so in the bid documents.


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