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News >  Idaho

Contract hits the highway

Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer

BOISE – Idaho’s Transportation Board agreed Wednesday to rescind its selection of a politically active Boise firm to oversee the largest highway construction project in the state’s history, after federal officials raised questions and a competing bidder sued.

Instead, the board agreed to step back and re-interview both firms that want to oversee the “Connecting Idaho” project. The new selection process will follow specific federal guidelines, and both companies have agreed not to challenge its outcome. The new interviews were set for Jan. 6.

When representatives of New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff and Boise-based Washington Group International were asked if that date worked, Dave Butzier, program manager for WGI, declared loudly, “We can make it the 6th or next week – we all live here,” prompting a loud, low murmur in the board’s packed hearing room.

Board members, at their Oct. 27 meeting, had cited the fact that WGI is a local company that supports the Idaho economy as a factor in the firm’s favor – but federal rules prohibit favoring local companies. The contract to oversee the 10-year highway project likely is worth as much as $50 million, all of which will come from federal highway funds.

WGI, formerly Morrison-Knudsen, is a large construction firm based in Boise that was part of a business coalition backing legislation approving the “Connecting Idaho” project last year. The firm donated more than $18,000 to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s re-election campaigns, including $3,750 last April, according to state campaign finance records. It also has donated more than $10,000 to the Idaho Republican Party.

The Transportation Department’s nine-member technical evaluation committee had unanimously recommended that Parsons Brinckerhoff get the contract, based on its analysis of both firms’ proposals. Federal officials said the Transportation Board erred by failing to give written reasons for overriding its staff’s recommendation, among other problems.

“Connecting Idaho” is Kempthorne’s $1.2 billion plan to make 30 years worth of major upgrades to highways around the state – including U.S. Highway 95, the state’s only north-south route – in just 10 years. It will be funded by borrowing against future federal highway allocations to the state, through Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles, or GARVEE bonds.

Board Chairman Chuck Winder bristled at suggestions that political cronyism played into the board’s initial decision on the contract. “That’s just not true,” he told the overflow crowd at the board meeting. “In spite of the fact that we said we hired the local guys, the guy that represented Parsons Brinckerhoff used to be the chief engineer for this department, and we have a lot of respect for him.”

Clinton Topham, Northwest district manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, said his firm was happy with the board’s decision Wednesday. “All we ask for is that the qualification-based selection process is followed correctly,” he said. “When that’s done, if we’re not selected, that’s fine.”

Parsons Brinckerhoff agreed to drop its lawsuit as part of the deal.

Transportation board members were split Wednesday, with some wanting to scrap the whole process and start over, and others favoring re-interviewing the same two bidders.

“No matter what we do in this situation, I think we’re going to be criticized,” said board member Bruce Sweeney of Lewiston. “That’s why I want to start over.”

Board member Monte McClure of Meridian said, “I agree that we probably didn’t strictly follow some of the rules, but I don’t feel that our decision was wrong, and I don’t want to go back and redo a decision that I think was done right in the first place.”

Neil Miller of Blackfoot said, “We’ve already been criticized. I admit that there was a slight procedural error. I want to correct it; I want to get it over with.”

In a Dec. 12 letter to ITD Director David Ekern, the Federal Highway Administration offered Idaho two options to avoid losing federal funding: Reject all bids and either start over from scratch or go without a contracted program manager; or reconsider both bids with a series of specific changes in the selection process. That’s the option the board chose.

The specific changes include conducting all deliberations only in open meetings; including a formal briefing to the board on what can and can’t be considered “to include a specific description of the prohibition on considering ‘local ties’ “; laying out in writing the board’s reasons for making its decision; getting a written Idaho Attorney General’s legal opinion on the process; and altering the selection criteria to remove one clause that federal officials said was inappropriate.

The inappropriate clause in the selection criteria dealt with how the contractor would be paid, including incentives and disincentives. Stephen Moreno, division administrator for the highway administration, said federal rules allow consideration of such issues, but points can’t be assigned to bids for such proposals. The point system for judging proposals is supposed to be limited to the companies’ qualifications, rather than cost issues.

Representatives of both WGI and Parsons Brinckerhoff said they had no idea how the elimination of that clause would affect they way their bids were scored.

“We put our trust in the board,” Butzier said. “We’re fine with the decision.”

The board voted 5-1 to rescind its previous contract award, with only McClure objecting, but split 3-3 on whether to re-interview the same two bidders, with members Miller, McClure and John McHugh of Post Falls voting yes; and members John Combo of Idaho Falls; Gary Blick of Castleford and Sweeney voting no. Winder then broke the tie, voting yes.

“Under the circumstances, I think the board made the best decision possible,” he said afterward. “I think to fall back and correct the areas of concern in our process is the best way to handle this.”

Moreno said his agency approved of the board’s action. “They’ve un-rung the bell,” he said.

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