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High bid inflates I-95 plan for toll bridge at Scudder Falls

Why don't more builders want to cross the Delaware?

The folks who run the patched-up I-95 bridge that carries 60,000 cars, trucks, and buses a day above the Delaware River at Scudder Falls for free had figured on paying up to $325 million to replace the 58-year-old, four-lane connection, plus aging exits in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with a six-lane toll bridge, stronger supports, and gentler curves by 2021.

Dozens of builders - including general contractors such as Driscoll Construction Corp., Tutor Perini Corp., and China Construction of America - have scrutinized the 1,800 items in Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission's plan, complete with hiring goals for "disadvantaged" contractors and protections for short-nosed sturgeon, brown bats, and lamp mussels living under the span.

But when bids were opened Jan. 11, only one company, Trumbull Corp. of Pittsburgh, offered to build the 4.4-mile project. Trumbull's bid was $396 million, more than 20 percent above the limit the commission had used to calculate the new tolls that will pay for it.

Where will the extra millions come from?

"It's a really, really large bid," Joe Resta, the commission's executive director, said of Trumbull's offer. "We're still evaluating."

By the commission's Jan. 30 meeting at its New Hope offices, Resta hopes to be able to recommend "either to plow ahead" and do the job with Trumbull  - finding the extra dollars somewhere - "or potentially re-bid."

Big changes would be difficult, he told me. It took 10 years to get the bridge plan past federal highway officials, and six public hearings to adopt the tolls.

Starting in 2019, the no-tollbooth system would clip drivers either $1.25 (E-ZPass) or $2.60 (Big Brother would record pass-less drivers' tags and bill them by mail). Regular commuters would get a discount. Truck tolls would range from $7 to $33. Only southbound drivers would pay. Going to New Jersey would be free.

Why didn't more contractors bid? Resta speculated: The bridge is more complex, and 10 times the price of any past project at the commission's 20 crossings from Trenton to New York state. He also cited competition: Builders are busy. Pennsylvania and New Jersey approved highway finance plans for other projects last year. The Trump-Pence presidential campaign also promised new infrastructure.

Another major feature makes the Scudder Falls project novel: After soliciting contractors in September, the bridge commission added in November a requirement that builders agree to a "project labor agreement" with unions in the Philadelphia- and Trenton-area building-trades councils that would set working conditions and dispute-resolution arrangements.

It was the first time the commission has required a PLA, and it's a deal-breaker for firms accustomed to using their own nonunion workers, according to David Maugle, executive vice president at J.D. Eckman Inc., a 65-year-old Chester County-based general contractor.

"The effect of the project labor agreement would require J.D. Eckman, and its subcontractors, to use the local unions' hiring halls for all project labor. This would prohibit the use of our own trained and skilled workforce," making it tough to estimate time and cost, Maugle told me.

The commission's Resta, who was project executive for the $800 million Pennsylvania Convention Center extension in the mid-2000s under a project labor agreement, said PLAs leave room for some nonunion labor. But "PLAs tend to be exclusionary," and "merit shops" that use nonunion workers tend not to bid on PLA jobs, Joseph Perpiglia, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Eastern Pennsylvania, told me.

The bridge commission isn't the only road authority that has lately turned to PLAs. Under Democratic Gov. WolfPennDot is asking contractors to enter a PLA to repave Markley Street in Norristown from Main to Elm, after paving nearby streets without such a deal.

"Project labor agreements can be a valuable tool [to] improve efficiency and ensure that projects are completed on time and under budget," Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott told me.

Wolf hopes PennDot PLAs can help avoid "the many issues experienced with SCI Phoenix," the $400 million state prison in Skippack, Abbott said. The prison has no project labor agreement. More than a year after its planned 2015 opening, state project rep Hill International and general contractor Walsh Heery Joint Venture were still squabbling over hundreds of inspections, letters obtained under the state Right to Know law show.

PLA projects, such as Resta's Convention Center construction or work at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, should ensure "a consistent and available workforce," clear out labor and contractor disputes quickly, and keep work "on schedule and on budget," says Anthony Wigglesworth, head of the Philadelphia Area Labor Management Committee, which oversees PLAs.