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January 6, 2011

9

Another chink in Antelope Valley

by Deena Winter

Several bridges that wind through Lincoln's Antelope Valley Project have been closed after a chunk of the new O Street bridge collapsed Tuesday.


Our $260 million investment in downtown Lincoln has a chink in it, and Mayor Chris Beutler is fighting mad, saying it’s totally unacceptable and he’ll make the responsible parties pay.
(To his credit) Beutler went public with the news that a big chunk of the Antelope Valley Project — specifically, the underside of the new O Street bridge — literally fell on Tuesday. The city closed the Antelope Valley trails in Union Plaza from N to Q streets, to be safe. But city officials said, don’t worry, the bridges are safe. Great.
These bridges were just built in the past few years and already they’re falling apart? The mayor ought to be mad.
The mayor’s office was also mad — at me — a couple of years ago when I wrote a lengthy, in-depth investigative series of stories about the Antelope Valley Project, concluding that the city of Lincoln had spent $34 million more than projected, even as it continued the work at a cost of $1,352 per hour.
In 2000, Antelope Valley proponents said the project would cost $175 million. That number has since been revised to more than $260 million. Although to be fair, there was a little footnote in 2000, noting that those were 1999 dollars. I also learned there really was no set budget; the city council approved a new budget every year.
The state auditor also found “significant accounting lapses” last year.
Less eye-catching was the fact that a New York consulting company called Parsons Brinckerhoff was hired to manage both design and construction of Antelope Valley under a “cost-plus fixed-fee” contract in which the company is paid for its costs, plus a fixed fee.
Such contracts are often criticized because they don’t encourage cost savings and (this is key) design flaws can be more easily covered up. Parsons Brinckerhoff, by the way, was also one of two companies that oversaw design and construction of Boston’s infamous Big Dig — widely considered the biggest public works debacle in our nation’s history. That interstate tunnel has been plagued by leaks and a woman was killed after 26 tons of concrete fell and crushed her car.
So I imagine city officials are a little nervous to see concrete falling from their bridges, too.
However, the mayor’s office did a full-court press when I was researching Antelope Valley, doing their best to make sure the story turned out as positively as possible. They sent a panel of city officials to refute various aspects of the story and argued that I should use larger inflationary factors to adjust the original cost projections (and blunt the blow) — all the spin you would expect in that situation.
After all, Beutler inherited the Antelope Valley Project. And after my series came out, Beutler decreed that the city would not proceed with phase two of the project. At least, not now.
The upshot is that even though it can make for dense reading, stories about the types of contracts the city enters for massive projects like Antelope Valley do matter. Which is why it’s important that we closely watch the way an even bigger public works project — the arena project — is handled. The way companies win bids matters. The way construction is overseen matters. The companies that are selected to build it matter.
Especially if it’s you who is under that bridge when a chunk of it gives way.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Janet Poley
    Jan 6 2011

    Thanks for this story and the history. I haven’t seen this in the Lincoln Journal Star yesterday or today. What is going on in this city? Keep it up and I hope you find a way to make a living at this.
    Jan Poley

    Reply
  2. Jeffrey Poley
    Jan 6 2011

    Deena:

    I know that I shouldn’t be commenting on this since I’m only a Certified City Planner and not a certified PE but I would like to know the name of the Certified Engineer who designed the O Street bridge and oversaw its construction. I’m sure it’s the guy or gal with the red face.

    Jeff…

    Reply
  3. Amethyst
    Jan 6 2011

    Thank you for the story. You are a journalist and not a cheerleader.

    Reply
  4. Carol
    Jan 6 2011

    I worry about the quality of the materials they use…all this recycling of concrete…I have seen firsthand some of the dirt and junk that goes into this recycling so how sturdy is this material for these projects??? Do we have any warrantee’s on these huge expensive projects???

    Reply
  5. CJ
    Jan 6 2011

    Keep up the excellent work, Deena.

    Your readers are fortunate you are no longer in a position–as a reporter for the local newspaper–that would subject your reporting to the timidity and the go-along-to-get-along m.o. of the mainstream media. Truly, the bulk of the best reporting these days is being done by professionals like you who are using the Internet to inform readers.

    Reply
  6. Roger Yant
    Jan 6 2011

    Keep up the good work Deena. I heard Beutler on the radio today, he said that we the city sure was not going to pay for it. Way to go mayor.

    Reply
  7. Jane H Kinsey
    Jan 6 2011

    Typical of another mistake that the Mayor and City Council make. We have a lot of them, Centrum, Grand Theater project, etc.
    Antelope Valley has always been a potential boondoggle and now the proof begins.

    Reply
  8. Reagan Republican
    Jan 6 2011

    Roger and Jane, don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re crazy just because your own Republican party refused to support you because you spoke out about what is happening in Lincoln. You were the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. If you look at this Tammy Buffington character, she is in with all the insider crowd. We need one of you two to step up and run for Mayor.

    Reply
  9. Bad Robot - Accountant Series 2011
    Jan 6 2011

    The Centrum, Grand Theater, Antelope Valley were all driven by compliant politcal office holders beholden to the usual group of kind of behind the scenes Lincoln profit makers. This has gotten old -lots of ordianry citizens see right through what has become a worn out act that tries to look transparent and accountable. Winter’s original series on the cash cow Valley project showed how a midwestern town (Lincoln) was indebting it’s public works investments for years to come to expand the UNL boundaries and create saleable properties for a bunch of buddies – all subsidized by the taxpayer – without few stop the spending levers. It was top quality journalism – we all learned what time it was and saw the pieces of clock described before us. Those are considerable skills and must have made LJS blanch.

    Reply

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