Miami-Dade County

Controversial I-395 reconstruction bid comes under more fire

The design for the Interstate 395 signature bridge by the second-ranked Fluor-Astaldi-MCM consortium.
The design for the Interstate 395 signature bridge by the second-ranked Fluor-Astaldi-MCM consortium. Fluor-Astaldi-MCM

The second-ranked team in the bidding for the Interstate 395 reconstruction said Wednesday that it’s formally protesting state transportation officials’ selection of a competitor in a process that’s come under substantial fire.

Brian Newman, an attorney for the competition runner-up, a joint-venture team of Fluor-Astaldi-MCM, sent Florida Department of Transportation officials a letter notifying them of the impending bid protest. The formal protest will be filed within 10 days, Newman said in the letter.

Bid protests on government contracts are not unusual, but this one comes amid unusually public questions and complaints from local elected officials and other stakeholders involving FDOT’s handling of the bidding for the high-profile, $800 million project. The stakes are also unusually high, because the project is designed partly to help reconnect and revitalize portions of Overtown and downtown Miami blighted by construction of the expressway in the 1960s.

The massive project includes construction of a new, higher I-395 and the rebuilding of extensive chunks of Interstate 95 and State Road 836, as well as a new “signature bridge” over Biscayne Boulevard that’s meant to serve as an iconic landmark for the resurgent neighborhood. The proposals also offer differing visions on ground-level improvements meant to weave back together the sundered urban fabric beneath the expressway.

The Fluor team’s notification follows by a day a unanimous resolution from the Miami-Dade County Commission asking FDOT to hold off awarding the contract until elected officials and the public can weigh in on the competing plans.

FDOT held the proposals by four finalists under wraps, citing confidentiality provisions in bid-award rules, until after an agency committee picked the top-ranked team on May 12 in a public hearing that only accentuated complaints about the process. That meant that no member of the public, and virtually no local officials, saw or could comment on the final proposals until after the agency had already picked a winner, critics note.

Commissioner Sally Heyman, sponsor of the resolution urging Florida to postpone handing the bid to a team led by contractors Archer Western and The de Moya Group, said the state should be more interested in hearing from the public before awarding the contract.

“They’re asking for the public input,” Heyman said. “Why not respect it?”

The battle for the contract pits a team led by a large U.S. contractor, Archer Western, represented by the influential Ballard lobbying firm, against another consortium led by a national contractor that includes Miami-based Munilla Construction, or MCM, a leading donor in county elections.

Only a half point separated the Archer Western and Fluor proposals in scoring by two FDOT review committees. But public officials and stakeholders have raised questions about whether FDOT manipulated or botched the scoring.

To settle a lawsuit by Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and then-city commissioner Marc Sarnoff, FDOT had agreed to appoint a committee made up of four community representatives and one agency official to score the proposals on aesthetic grounds, including ground-level improvements along a one-mile stretch cutting through Overtown and the Omni and Park West districts.

According to a letter written by a law firm representing Sarnoff in the suit, the aesthetic review committee’s scores were to be given equal weight to aesthetic scores issued by a separate committee of five FDOT engineers. But the FDOT official quit the community panel for undisclosed reasons. The agency then simply tallied all remaining nine aesthetics scores together in violation of the settlement agreement, Sarnoff contends. That diluted the weight of the community representatives’ evaluations, which favored the Fluor team’s proposal, and was enough to barely give Archer Western the edge in the overall competition, Sarnoff says.

Regalado responded with a letter saying he had no issue with FDOT’s handling of the bids. But Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Bruno Barreiro weighed in with their own letters asking FDOT to postpone its selection hearing and to make a public presentation on the competing plans.

The community members of the aesthetic review committee, who included Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmondson and Arsht Center for the Performing Arts CEO John Richard, remain bound by the FDOT “cone of silence” rules and have declined comment. But committee member Alyce Robertson, executive director of the quasi-public Downtown Development Authority, wrote a public letter to the FDOT selection committee asking it to pick the Fluor proposal as the best alternative. (Edmondson recused herself from the commission resolution vote.)

FDOT has not publicly responded to public officials’ requests. The agency said on Wednesday that bid protests are handled “through the administrative hearing process.”

The Archer Western team issued a brief statement Thursday through a lobbyist, Brian May, saying that FDOT followed established rules.

“We are confident that any protest review of the selection process will conclude that FDOT conducted a fair and open RFP process with an unprecedented amount of local input,” the statement read in part, alluding to public testimony that was taken well before final proposals were developed.

Freddy Balsera, a lobbyist and member of Fluor-Astaldi, said the team would welcome a chance to make a public presentation.

“It was always a major component of the project for the bidders to deliver an aesthetic bridge with state-of-art innovations, and the Fluor-Astaldi-MCM Team delivered on this component by receiving the most amount of points from the Aesthetic Review Committee, the committee that represents the community.” Balsera said in a statement.

Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.