The Mt. Auburn Street renovation project has been approved by the state, and the primary construction contractor is the same one with which Watertown officials have had difficulties on a recent project.
On Jan. 17, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board of Director approved the Rehabilitation of Mt. Auburn Street Project. The project includes redesigning the roadway, bike lanes, sidewalks, and pedestrian areas at key intersections along the thoroughfare that runs from Watertown Square to the Cambridge line.
Before the vote took place, City Manager George Proakis informed the City Council that the low bidder on the contract was Newport Construction, the same firm that has been working on the repaving of Highland Avenue.
The Highland Avenue project has been the source of complaints for many residents on the Westside roadway, as well as for City officials. Proakis said he met with residents of the street for 2.5 hours recently. He added that about half the project has been completed, and the remainder of the project will be rebid.
The City of Watertown has scored Newport’s performance so that it is no longer considered a responsible bidder for future projects in town. That, however, does not apply to projects managed by the state, Proakis said, which includes the Mt. Auburn Street project.
“We pointed that out to MassDOT prior to opening bids,” Proakis said. “MassDOT, though, has a system where they prequalify bidders, like this case, regardless of what we or others might think or do.”
When the bids were opened, Newport was the lowest bid by a substantial amount, Proakis said. According to the presentation to the MassDOT Board, Newport’s bid was $26.66 million, and the next lowest was $31.74 million by Albanese D&S. The total project budget will be $32.24 million, including a 10 percent contingency, a 5 percent construction engineering cost, and $1.1 million for “traffic police.”
Proakis had to sign the 110 Agreement, which says that any costs above 110 percent of the total project budget must be covered by the City of Watertown. He told the Council he was concerned that may happen, due to prior experience with the firm. MassDOT officials told him the purpose of the 110 Agreement was to cover cost increases due to design flaws. Proakis added that the City of Watertown hired a contractor to design the project.
Proakis also inquired about how Watertown could go about changing the contractor assigned to the project.
“They indicated unless we pulled back the project, redesigned, and resubmitted; there is no way to change a prequalified bid at the state level,” Proakis said. “If we do that, we do also run the risk of losing the federal match that is paying for a majority of the project, which is pretty risky.”
One project in another community went through the withdrawal and resubmission process, Proakis said, and three years later they have not gone back out to bid.
“So, I am looking at the possibility that if we were doing that, that we are sitting on Mt. Auburn Street as a bumpy, messy road for another three years,” he said. “I don’t see that as a particularly appealing option at this point.”
While Watertown officials cannot control who gets the contract, Proakis said he and Public Works Superintendent Greg St. Louis have made efforts to keep the project on time and on budget.
“We met with the (MassDOT) District 6 director, and we also met with the individual at District 6 that is responsible for assigning the resident engineer — the actual person from MassDOT that is out on the project everyday instructing the contractor on what to do,” Proakis said. “We had some healthy conversation about some of the challenges, some of the concerns about where some of these things may go. I brought up special issues such as redesign costs if they do things wrong and they have to do that over, cost for bad work, if we have to tear things up and do things over.”
One particular concern is to make sure that businesses can stay open during construction, and that public transportation keeps running during the project.
Along with the trepidation over cost overrun, Proakis cited concern that the project going longer than scheduled.
“If you remember we spent a few million dollars to do five-year easements,” Proakis said. “This is essentially a project that could have a four-year timeframe. If this drags, the way Highland Avenue did, into a sixth year suddenly we may have to extend easements into areas that have not been finished and MassDOT’s opinion is that (cost) is on us, but we had a more deeper conversation about what that means when it is the contractor’s fault.”
To avoid having work stretch out, Proakis said, the City will coordinate with MassDOT, the utilities, and the MBTA to have them lined up so that construction is not delayed because those items have not been completed.
“The goal to limit the number, the circumstances under which the contractor can say, ‘Hey, this was your fault,'” Proakis said. “We want to make it clear that we expect them to be out there every day and everything else we will have lined up for them under those circumstances.”
Proakis told Councilors that he and St. Louis will build and maintain close working relationships with MassDOT District 6, and potentially have one of the City’s engineering staff assigned to help out MassDOT’s resident engineer.
He added that he believes going ahead with the project is the best option.
“At the end of the day I believe this project will be very good for Watertown in the long run. One of the most common comments I get when I meet people is, ‘Why is Mt. Auburn Street in such bad shape?’ So getting it started, I think, in the long run, is good for all of us,” Proakis said. “I want to get this started this spring and I am confident we will have a better street moving forward. I am hoping that we can build a good working relationship with the contractor to be able to make that happen, but at a minimum I want to make sure we build a good relationship with the resident engineer and the folks at District 6 to make that happen.”