Our Voice: Thumbs up to the state Department of Transportation

April 22, 2013 

The state Department of Transportation recently fired its chief bridge engineer and another employee responsible for a flawed bid process on the Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington.

Yes, it feels a bit like DOT found a scapegoat. No doubt pressure from the Legislature and former Gov. Chris Gregoire's office to complete the job by 2014 contributed to the fiasco and share some responsibility.

Jugesh Kapur, head of the DOT's Bridge and Structures office, was responsible for maintaining around 3,000 crossings. The decision to speed up Highway 520 by adding design work to the division's already heavy workload instead of hiring outside experts proved disastrous.

A state investigative report concluded that DOT's engineers were confused about the division of responsibility, and the state's design included mistakes, The Seattle Times reported.

Cracks in the first batch of new Highway 520 bridge pontoons caused by the design flaws are serious enough to require major repairs that will ultimately cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Paula Hammond, former DOT secretary, told the Times the design team took shortcuts, including a failure to run models that would have predicted the cracking problems.

Kapur may be a scapegoat, but he's the appropriate one. Holding him accountable is the right move for DOT.

Unintended consequences

Thumbs down to the Small Business Administration and Office of Management and Budget in forcing unneeded changes in the way small businesses get work at Hanford.

The move means the Department of Energy will award Hanford contracts directly to small businesses, instead of leaving it to the site's major contractors.

The five prime Department of Energy contractors have been awarding about 55 percent of the value of their subcontracts to small business, and under the new requirements still would have a goal of awarding 52 percent.

The new rules require DOE to award 7 percent of the approximately $2 billion of work done each year at Hanford to small businesses.

It sounds good, but it won't improve on the status quo and may even hurt small businesses in the Mid-Columbia that aren't big enough to deal directly with the federal government. Chances are, the new system will shift some of the work from small local companies to bigger firms headquartered somewhere other than the Mid-Columbia.

Last year, Hanford's prime contractors subcontracted work to 1,000 to 1,500 small businesses.

"DOE couldn't administer that much," said Greg Jones, Hanford DOE chief financial officer. Instead, it probably will bundle work under a single, larger contract.

"That will make one company very happy," he said. And many more unhappy, we predict.

Among other problems the new rules create, the cost of bidding federal contracts is much higher than bidding on a subcontract. A long wait exists between the time bids are taken and awards are announced. When a prime contractor is awarding subcontracts, it takes one to three months. DOE, on the other hand, would need nine to 18 months to do the same. A small business can't afford to wait that long for work.

This change purports to aid small business but appears to do the opposite.

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