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House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan is questioning ten years of contract extensions on the I-95 South Viaduct Bridge Project.

“My office submitted various APRA requests and the information provided by the Department of Transportation opened up more questions than answers, which I find deeply troubling,” stated Leader Morgan. She continued, “A 2016 highway report shows that Rhode Island is among the worst states in the nation for cost-effectiveness of highway spending. The Providence Viaduct exemplifies this ineffectiveness and lack of efficiency for our taxpayer dollars.”

The report, issued by the Reason Foundation in 2016 about the performance of highway systems, shows that Rhode Island spends a disproportionately large amount on highway maintenance relative to neighboring New England states. Despite this, Rhode Island still has poorly performing highways – showing a clear lack of cost-effectiveness. In the report, Rhode Island received an overall ranking of 47 out of 50 – last in New England and among the worst in the nation.

The replacement of the southbound Providence viaduct originally began as a small $1 million contract in 2008 and called for the inspection and testing of the bridge deck, evaluation of its condition, and recommendations for repair or replacement.

The project was to be carried out in two separate phases, each lasting around twelve months. Quoting from the original contract which is for Phase I services ONLY: Phase I – Study & Development services ONLY. It has been determined that due to the cost and complexity of this project, RIDOT will re-solicit for PHASE II- Final Design Services.”However, DOT failed to re-solicit for the following phases.

The contract was awarded to Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc (VHB), a Watertown, Massachusetts-based company, in early 2008. VHB began the review process as scheduled. However, in December 2008, they reported structural and metal issues that presented a major safety hazard. On January 7, 2009, the director of RIDOT authorized the VHB to begin work immediately on the viaduct, essentially tossing out the specified review period and handing them the second phase of the project without open bidding.

“Records show that the contract was awarded to VHB and that evaluation never took place, why not?  Worse, for 10 years the work has proceeded through change orders. It has now grown to $25.7 million without the benefit of having an open and competitive bid.” stated Representative Morgan.

RIDOT states in amendments to the original contract that this would be a time and cost-saving measure. They argue that because VHB was already under contract with the state and working on the project that it would be simpler to hand the project to them rather than seek additional bids.

“That’s a poor excuse for good management,” said Morgan.

Going forward, VHB’s contract with the state was extended three times and now without once again issuing a Request for Proposal and allowing for an open process and competitive bidding they have ‘given’ VHB the contract to design the northbound viaduct at a beginning value of $7.2 million, continuing that small $1 million original contract until 2020. “In other words, from a small opening bid, DOT has given tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for the project as well as additional work, including the chance to redesign the northbound side of the viaduct and to reroute a RIDOT fiber optic cable through change orders: all without a competitive bid.

“After the original $1 million RFP and accepted bid, the Department of Transportation has failed to seek competitive bids on any of the continuing work.  They have simply extended the $1 million bid and have allowed it to escalate to a $25.7 million contract without transparency, accountability or an open, public and competitive process. Now they have again without an open public bid given the $ 7.2 million northbound contract to this engineering firm. Neither of these projects, as a result, have received the benefits that a competitive process would deliver.

Leader Morgan stated: “If a more realistic cost for the project was included in the original RFP, there may have been more bids from more experienced firms. Many firms with experienced and broad capabilities would not have bid on the original $1 million contract.  However it is very likely that Rhode Island would have received bids from a much larger group of engineering firms, had they known it would balloon into a $33+ million project.  Taxpayers would have reaped the benefit of more robust competition, perhaps better expertise, and a better price. A project this large should be handled with openness and competition so Rhode Island citizens can feel confident that their taxpayer dollars are being maximized.” 

In closing, she said: “Reading through independent studies and the documents provided by RIDOT, it is apparent that Rhode Islanders deserve a more open and transparent government. This is another example of the wasteful and unaccountable behavior that hardworking Rhode Islanders have come to expect.”