10 News Investigators: I-4 Connector contractor makes mistake and damages Selmon; will ask taxpayers to pay for it

8:51 PM, Sep 19, 2011   |    comments
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HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Florida - The 10 News Investigators have learned a major mistake from Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) contractors has damaged the Selmon Expressway and could slow down the already-delayed I-4 Connector project.

FDOT awarded the nearly-$400 million project to contractors PCL and Archer Western because they bid to have the project done faster than competing contractors.  But the Summer 2013 completion date seems like a pipe dream as notices of delay after delay roll into FDOT offices.

A recent incident, the settling of soil under the adjacent Selmon Expressway, could delay the completion even more.  The Selmon is owned by the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA), a locally-operated agency, unlike the I-4 Connector, constructed with state and federal tax dollars.

And while the Selmon Expressway wasn't under construction, it suffered construction damage on July 13, 2011, when PCL-Archer Western (PCL-AW) went ahead with a modification to FDOT's design plan that was never authorized.

"How could something like this happen to our roadway?" asked Stephen Diaco, THEA's Chairman.  "When you believe the rules are being followed, that's what contracts are there for, that's what rules are there for, is to prevent just this type of episode."

Click here to read the unauthorized request

PCL-AW began digging around a mechanically-stabilized earth wall in Ybor City, but didn't utilize a protective sheeting as FDOT planned.  The digging caused moist soil to leak out of the bottom of the wall and the structure ruptured. 

A depression opened up under the Selmon Expressway, leaving a giant crack and a week's worth of closures and detours.  PCL-AW was able to patch the highway and make it safe, but traffic remains diverted around the affected roadway, slowing the right-of-way.

Neither PCL nor FDOT knew how long it would take to fix the problem, but the contractors indicated they faulted an "unforseen condition" of construction and expected to be paid for the repair work.  They filed a claim for additional work on July 13, the day the incident occured.

FDOT has said arbitration procedures may ultimately decide if taxpayers will be on the hook for the damage.  PCL declined an interview, but said they had not jumped the gun on the modification since "only the preparatory work began on the footing while awaiting final approval from FDOT for the actual construction."

The Selmon repairs notwithstanding, the I-4 Connector project finds itself more than 80 days behind schedule due to "unforseen conditions" and other construction delays.  It has been delayed 17 days because of inclement weather too.

And while FDOT contracts do not currently take weather into account when estimating project completion times, most major projects still finish behind schedule. 

Over the past four years, the average FDOT project finished seven percent behind schedule and seven percent over-budget.  The price taxpayers pay is actually greater, since the budget doesn't include tens of millions of contractor bonuses each year.

For now, the Selmon Expressway is safe and all lanes are open,  but closures are likely again as PCL-AW and FDOT work on a permanent fix.  THEA is unlikely to foot the direct repair bill since it has insurance to cover losses, but its chairman says the agency willl still suffer from the contractors' mistakes through commuter delays and reputation damages.

"How much is it going to cost? How long will it take? What more interruptions will my users suffer based on their negligence?" Diaco asked.

Diaco has a history with FDOT's contractor; PCL is the last remaining party suing THEA over the 2004 collapse of the roadway.  THEA claims PCL over-billed for work.   FDOT says the pending litigation was not a consideration when it awarded the bid for the I-4 Connector project. 

Connect with 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky or Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky.  Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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