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See why the Duportail Bridge project is heading to court

A Benton County Superior Court Judge issued an injunction to stop Richland from awarding a $25 million construction contract for the Duportail Bridge to Kennewick’s Apollo Inc. after a losing bidder objects to its disadvantaged business status. Also, the city council may reconsider using a $20 car tab fee to help pay for the bridge.
A Benton County Superior Court Judge issued an injunction to stop Richland from awarding a $25 million construction contract for the Duportail Bridge to Kennewick’s Apollo Inc. after a losing bidder objects to its disadvantaged business status. Also, the city council may reconsider using a $20 car tab fee to help pay for the bridge. Tri-City Herald

Richland’s controversial Duportail Bridge project has hit another snag. And the delay could halt a new effort to slash the city’s controversial car tab fee.

The city’s plans to award the construction contract to Apollo Inc. of Kennewick on Tuesday were thwarted when a losing bidder got a last-minute court injunction halting the $25 million award.

The entire project is projected to cost $38 million, most of it funded by the state.

N.A. Degerstrom Inc. of Spokane alleges Apollo should be disqualified because of unspecified problems related to how it plans to use disadvantaged businesses on the project.

Superior Court Judge Jackie Shea-Brown signed the injunction. The Benton County Clerk’s office said the complaint arrived late Tuesday and would take a day to process so no documents will be available to the public before Thursday.

Richland officials, including the city attorney, said they do not have copies of the complaint. A hearing is reportedly set for Dec. 29.

It is the second time N.A. Degerstrom has objected to the award based on Apollo’s “disadvantaged” business documentation.

Shortly after bids were opened Dec. 5, it told the Richland that Apollo should be disqualified. The Washington State Department of Transportation reviewed the issue and disagreed.

$28.5 million City estimate

$25.1M Apollo of Kennewick’s bid

$27M N.A. Degerstrom of Spokane’s bid

$27.2M Rotschy of Vancouver

$27.25M Cascade Bridge LLC of Vancouver

$28.1M Interwest Construction of Burlington

$29.1M Ceccanti of Tacoma

$29.38M Hamilton Construction of Springfield, Ore.

$29.39M Max J. Kuney of Spokane

$30.5M Graham Contracting of Bellevue

City staff put the contract on the council’s Dec. 19 agenda, with a recommendation to hire Apollo.

Mark Johnson, civil projects manager for N.A. Degerstrom, said it believes Apollo’s paperwork was improperly completed and it felt the state review was inadequate.

Johnson said it’s unusual for his firm to protest bids.

“We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t what we felt was a genuine issue,” he said.

N.A. Degerstrom submitted the second-lowest of the nine bids Richland received from contractors in Washington and Oregon.

Apollo’s bid of $25.13 million was the lowest and was more than $3 million lower than the city’s $28.5 million estimate. N.A. Degerstrom’s bid of $27 million was also below the city engineer’s estimate.

Johnson called the three-year project a welcome prospect to contractors.

“It’s a nice project,” he said. “It’s the kind of work we do.”

The delay could have unexpected implications for the city.

The city hopes to see the contractor begin staging for the work in February.

The ambitious project includes building the bridge as well as surrounding infrastructure.

Environmental rules limit work in the Yakima River to the summer months, which makes timing critical. It is supposed to open in 2020, providing a new transportation link between Queensgate and the downtown core.

The bridge also will be a conduit for a critical new water line to serve south Richland to replace an aging 1950s-era pipe in the river.

We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t what we felt was a genuine issue.

Mark Johnson, N.A. Degerstrom

Also, the delay could put nascent discussions about reducing Richland’s contentious $20 car tab fee at risk.

The current council unanimously adopted the fee this year to cover a gap in bridge funding as well as pavement maintenance. The fee goes into effect Jan. 1.

When bids came in below estimates, Mayor Bob Thompson began entertaining the idea of revisiting the unpopular tax on the 40,000 or so vehicles registered to Richland addresses.

The below-estimate bids hint that the city may not need to sell bonds after all. That could mean it won’t need to levy the entire $20 fee to cover debt payments.

If that’s the case, Thompson said it would be appropriate for the city’s elected leaders to consider lowering the tab fee in 2018. The council’s next meeting is Jan. 2.

At that time, it will swear in two new members, Michael Alvarez and Ryan Lukson. It will also choose a new mayor from among its members, a contest that is expected to be heated.

Thompson notes the outgoing council pledged to use the $20 to fund bridge construction and pavement maintenance. It would be inappropriate to use it for any other purpose, he said.

That car tab fee could go down. That would be consistent with what we originally said.

Richland Mayor Bob Thompson

“That car tab fee could go down. That would be consistent with what we originally said,” Thompson said.

The discussion is preliminary, but the argument could center on just how much money the city needs for pavement preservation.

At $20 a vehicle, the fee is expected to generate about $850,000 in new revenue per year.

The city initially said it would use 40 percent, or $340,000, to support debt payments on bridge-related debt, and 60 percent, or $510,000 to augment the $1.2 million it already spends on street maintenance annually.

It also pledged to keep seeking outside funding, eventually reducing the gap to less than $2 million.

It’s unlikely the city would alter the collections in 2018. It has already notified the Department of Revenue to collect the fee.

Richland residents with tab expiring in the first couple of months of 2018 have received their bills. To unring the bell after the billing year begins would be impractical. But the council could lower the rate starting in 2019.

But a court challenge could raise the cost and cement the need to take on car tab fee-backed debt to pay for it.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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