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Pa. investigates delays at $400M prison

Not in January

Pennsylvania's new $400 million Phoenix state prison complex was planned to open in November, 2015. It was delayed until this past Oct. 24, and then projected to open early in the New Year.

Now that is not going to happen either.

"Definitely not January," spokeswoman Wendy Shaylor told me last week.

State officials said Friday that they don't know when the prison will open and have asked the Office of Inspector General to investigate the general contractor Walsh/Heery for the delays.

Walsh/Heery, the Pittsburgh-based consortium of Chicago and Atlanta firms that is managing construction of the complex in Skippack Township, Montgomery County, has been subject to late penalties at the rate of $35,000 a day for more than a year.

State officials say they have withheld almost $14 million in "liquidated damages" from Walsh/Heery for being 399 days late so far. Walsh/Heery officials haven't commented. Some contractors have told me they also find them hard to reach.

The Phoenix prison, built for nearly 4,000 inmates, is the second largest public building project in state history, behind only the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.  The new facility, which includes includes units for women and a Death Row, is supposed to replace the hulking stone complex at Graterford next door as the main state facility for Philadelphia-area inmates.

But the project has not been smooth. Subcontractors have complained of missed payments and of site problems.

"Some of us have been using personal funds" to pay workers while waiting for late payments, said Caroline Thomas, owner of Superior Maintenance Services Inc., a contractor at the site who declined to discuss other issues.  "It's such a large project. Big money, and a lot of intricacies." She said her firm has done state jobs in New Jersey, California, Florida and other states, with less trouble.

Subcontractors also say that concrete forms and embedded metal beds were built properly but were left exposed and damaged by the elements, and now will need to be redone.

The state says it has promptly paid the lead contractor and has taken "the unprecedented action of posting the contractor's invoices" on its website so subcontractors can track payments.

The project has been the subject of 137 state-approved change orders worth $33.4 million. Officials say they have paid all but $363,000, which Walsh/Heery has not yet submitted.

Brian McGinty, operations manager for the Walsh Heery partnership, and other officials at the parent companies Walsh Construction Co. in Chicago and Heery International Inc. in Atlanta haven't responded to inquiries.