Option for troubled I-83/Mount Rose project: Close overpass
One of the largest contractors in the country has assumed oversight of the troubled Mount Rose Avenue/Interstate 83 interchange reconstruction and is proposing a drastic measure to get the project back on track:
Completely close the heavily traveled overpass in central York County.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s executive for the south-central district said he wants California-based Tutor Perini to accelerate work on the overdue and overbudget project, but he doesn’t support that “extreme idea.”
“If we allowed him to close Mount Rose Avenue — completely close it — he could get that bridge done quicker,” Mike Keiser of PennDOT said. “I don’t know if that’s in the best interest of the public.”
Jessup, Maryland-based Cherry Hill Construction won the contract with a $58.3 million bid and broke ground in April 2015. The job was supposed to be completed in June 2018, but PennDOT agreed to a new completion date of November 2019 or early 2020, according to department spokesman Greg Penny.
Cherry Hill is a subsidiary of Tutor Perini, which Keiser said is the second-largest transportation construction company in the United States. The parent company stepped in to manage the project earlier this year.
PennDOT officials have acknowledged responsibility for some, but not all, of the delays, and the department is now negotiating with Tutor Perini to settle on a final price tag and completion date — a process Keiser suggested could end up in arbitration.
The parent company believes they are “owed more time” to finish the project, the PennDOT official said, and there are three or four other sticking points.
Tutor Perini has picked up the pace, according to Keiser, and he hopes that means the project will be finished within the new schedule, rather than have the state Board of Claims settle negotiations.
“We felt the job was never really staffed to the level it should be by Cherry Hill,” Keiser said.
Before Tutor Perini stepped in, Cherry Hill had 11 different superintendents in charge of the project, and the company was “losing money” on the job, he said.
Cherry Hill referred requests for comment to Tutor Perini, which did not respond to multiple phone messages.
Change orders: Over the summer, residents and businesses near the project reported already-completed work was being removed.
Cherry Hill was ordered to redo curbing and paving on Haines Road in Springettsbury Township because it did not meet PennDOT's specifications, according to Penny, the PennDOT spokesman.
A state inspector had raised questions about the planned work, but Cherry Hill reassured the inspector that it would be done properly, he said.
In the end, “subsequent testing of the pavement" indicated it wasn't up to specifications, and the work had to be corrected, Penny said.
Asked in August how many other times Cherry Hill had to make corrections to the project over the past three years, the spokesman said PennDOT was “not going to get into specifics at this time.”
A subsequent Right-to-Know Law request showed 57 change orders since work began, which Keiser said is not unusual for a project such as the Mount Rose interchange.
Options: The focus now is on Cherry Hill finishing the work, which is frustrating nearby residents and businesses, as well as state lawmakers who represent them.
“At some point, their corporate office, which is Tutor Perini, the parent company, needs to make a decision," Keiser said. "We’ve got to get this job done."
In addition to closing Mount Rose Avenue over the interstate, another idea to speed the project along is “tightening” work spaces near ramps, where construction workers would direct traffic flow onto I-83, he explained.
Both situations could pose an “emergency situation,” Keiser said.
“What you think you’ve freed up, you may have caused more backup for miles,” he noted. “We are sympathetic that someone with a business in the construction area is probably affected because drivers aren't stopping in that area.”
What’s next: If negotiations break down and Tutor Perini chooses to go to the state Board of Claims, then “it’s out of PennDOT’s control,” Keiser said, adding he’s concerned an arbitrator could decide to pay the contractor “three times the amount” for the project, even though it’s been delayed.
State representatives and local officials will be provided an update in November, he said.
In response to the project, state Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, has said he wants to introduce a bill during the next legislative session that would allow entities to consider awarding a contract to the next bidder if they are within 1 percent of the lowest bidder’s price.
It also would allow the awarding entity to research a contractor’s reputation. Companies known to be over budget or historically late on projects could be overlooked and the entity could move on to the next-lowest bidder, he said.
The next-lowest bidder on Mount Rose Avenue/I-83 was York County-based G.A. & F.C. Wagman Inc. at $59.46 million. Cherry Hill has estimated the cost is now $59.7 million.
While acknowledging that he didn’t know if a local contractor would have completed the job on time, Keiser noted they have existing relationships that out-of-town companies lack.
That also doesn’t mean the same challenges wouldn’t have happened on this job with a local company, he said.
"I just think everyone feels that a contractor from York County would step it up,” Keiser said.