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.