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EDITORIAL: Mount Rose shows PennDOT needs to change its contracting process

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Construction progress is crawling along on the Mount Rose Avenue, Interstate 83 junction, Wednesday, February 26, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

Five years.

In April, the Mount Rose Avenue interchange at Interstate 83 will have been under construction for five years. 

When the work began in April 2015, Cherry Hill Construction told the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation that, for $58.3 million, it could completely redesign and rebuild the interchange by June 2018.

Today, the project cost has surpassed $60 million, and PennDOT can't say when it will be finished.

"I’m hoping the project gets done by the end of this year or beginning of next year, the latest by spring 2021," said Yassmin Gramian, PennDOT's acting secretary.

More:Senator blasts Mount Rose project contractor for ‘change-order scheming’

More:Grove pitches bill targeting Mount Rose Avenue contractor

State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill has had enough.

The York Township Republican, who we're sure hears from her constituents constantly about the project, pointed her finger Tuesday at Cherry Hill Construction and its parent company, Tutor Perini, during a Senate Appropriations Committee budget hearing.

“I’ve read countless articles and reports on the company where they (Tutor Perini) go in on the low bid and then submit additional cost overruns with lengthy project delays,” she said during a back-and-forth with Gramian.

Tutor Perini, the second-largest transportation construction company in the nation, stepped up to manage the Mount Rose project in 2018.

But Tutor Perini has been called a "change-order artist" by officials in California, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. According to an investigation by the newspaper, 11 major projects in the San Francisco Bay Area completed by Tutor between 2001 and 2013 cost local governments $765 million more than they expected, or 40% above the initial bids.

PennDOT has fined Cherry Hill $14,000 a day for failing to complete the job on time. The company now owes $7 million in fines and recently filed a claim against PennDOT with the state Board of Claims seeking $24.2 million in damages and a 598-day extension.

“Our statute states that our bids go to the lowest responsible bidder, and I have to say I’d hardly classify Tutor Perini as responsible,” Phillips-Hill said. “How can we safeguard against future PennDOT bids going to entities that specialize in change-order scheming?”

She went on to say that PennDOT needs to take the Mount Rose debacle into account when it awards bids for major construction projects in the future.

We couldn't agree more. 

Construction progress is crawling along on the Mount Rose Avenue, Interstate 83 junction, Wednesday, February 26, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

PennDOT is bound by law to accept the lowest bid for projects from qualified bidders. But there needs to be a caveat to that to take into account a company's history of finishing jobs on time and on budget. 

In 2018, state Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, said he was considering introducing a bill to let entities such as PennDOT consider whether the lowest bid came from a company that has had projects that were completed late or over budget and move along to a slightly higher bid from a company with a better reputation.

That still seems like a sound idea that the Legislature needs to take up. In the Mount Rose project, the next-lowest bidder on Mount Rose Avenue/I-83 was York County-based G.A. & F.C. Wagman Inc. at $59.46 million. Would Wagman have finished the project by now, at that price? No one can say, but with a local office and knowledge of suppliers and such, we think they would have had a better chance.

Meanwhile, York County drivers continue to weave through a maze of signs and cones or just avoid Mount Rose Avenue altogether. 

"This project keeps me up at night," Gramian said.

You and a lot of other people, acting secretary.