With no end in sight for Mount Rose project, lawmakers say their hands are tied

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Some of the first motorists to use the northbound off-ramp of Interstate I-83 to Mount Rose Avenue westbound, exit the highway Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The ramp, and other completed ramps at the interchange, have opened. Bill Kalina photo

With three months worth of work needed to complete the Mount Rose interchange project, it is now essentially in limbo without any indication of when it will be completed.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers say their hands are tied on the matter, and even if the state Department of Transportation wanted to drop Maryland-based Cherry Hill Construction and find another contractor, the process would be too lengthy for that to be a realistic solution.

PennDOT and Cherry Hill remain at a stalemate over final pavement plans on the Interstate 83 project, which is three years behind schedule. The company has said it can complete the project in 90 days once the plans are approved, but PennDOT says that's not going to happen.

Tutor Perini, the parent company of Cherry Hill, in a statement last week said it submitted revised pavement plans on April 3.

The submitted plans "don't meet the plans or specifications, and are therefore unacceptable," said PennDOT spokesperson Dave Thompson in a statement.

State Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said that canceling the contract with Cherry Hill would entail a lengthy court process. 

In addition, he said, it would also take up to two years to go through the bidding process and find another contractor.

“The federal government needs to give us the ability to hold these contractors more accountable. A lot of (the funding) is federal dollars,” Saylor said.

Saylor said he specifically hopes to see federal legislation that would allow states to more easily cancel contracts and find replacement contractors when necessary.

The Mount Rose project began in 2015 and was initially slated to wrap up in 2018, but it has been repeatedly pushed back as costs continue to increase. The project was most recently supposed to be completed on May 11.

More:Company says PennDOT is holding up Mount Rose Avenue interchange project

More:Mount Rose interchange deadline missed again; new completion date unclear

The company originally bid $58.3 million for the work, but the cost has now risen to $62.7 million. 

The contractor has also incurred more than $23 million in liquidated damages, which are late fees demanded by the state, PennDOT has said.

Cherry Hill, though, claims it does not owe any money in liquidated damages.

When asked how PennDOT plans to compel the contractor to finish the job, such as a lawsuit, Thompson said the agency is continuing to work with Cherry Hill to have the interstate paved under the initial specifications.

Tutor Perini did not respond to inquiries for comment about whether it would budge on the matter.

The company most recently has been working on smaller items such as the installation of permanent signs, traffic signals, curbs and sidewalks, according to PennDOT.

It has not submitted a pavement schedule or estimated completion date to the agency.

Gene Smith of contractor Tutor Perini paints asphalt marking on the southbound off-ramp of Interstate I-83 onto Mount Rose Avenue westbound Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The ramp, and other completed ramps at the exit, are opening. Bill Kalina photo

PennDOT and Cherry Hill are already in the middle of a legal dispute in front of the state Board of Claims.

In December 2019, the contractor filed a claim with the state's quasi-judicial agency handling contract disputes alleging the state owes it more than $24 million.

It also sought a 598-day extension of the contract's completion date. It was unclear whether the claim is referring to the initial June 2018 deadline.

The company alleged PennDOT repeatedly breached its contract with the company since the project began, ignoring issues that surfaced along the way.

PennDOT replied, arguing that it abided by the contract and that any delays were the fault of Cherry Hill.

Thompson said the parties don't need to wait for the case to be settled to continue work. In addition, the company could be paving right now if Cherry Hill followed the initial project plans.

A trial date has not yet been set, and there's no timeline for when the parties should expect to go to court, said an official with the Board of Claims who would not provide her name.

“We want this to be completed,” said state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township. “But legislators cannot insert themselves in litigation. The judicial process has to play out."

Phillips-Hill is currently circulating a legislative memo with plans to introduce a bill that would bulk up the state's vetting of contractors such as Cherry Hill.

Under the upcoming legislation, PennDOT would be required to take into account a bidder's history of what she calls “change order scheming."

Currently, PennDOT is required to award contracts to the lowest bidder.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.