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The Southbank Riverwalk is a dilapidated shell of its former self — the wood splintering, the concrete supports eroded to reveal rusted rebar. Jacksonville City Councilmember Don Redman, whose district includes the Southbank, found out just how out bad things were in 2009, when a loose board prompted a bad fall off his bicycle, and he spent Thanksgiving in the hospital, with a broken leg.

The condition of the 4,500-foot wooden walkway should come as no surprise to anyone who saw the project unfold. Both the city of Jacksonville and the New Orleans architect hired to build the project in 1985 were told by contractor Wood-Hopkins that the lumber they’d selected wouldn’t last. They were also told the nails selected were too short to provide the anchoring necessary for a waterfront walkway. Both products were used anyway, and the Riverwalk began failing before it was even completed.

As costs increased, so did public concern. Then-State Attorney Ed Austin ordered a grand jury investigation, which concluded that the handling of the project was “almost criminal.”

Some 25 years later, city is poised to tear out the entire boardwalk and replace it with a precast concrete superstructure. Last year, the city awarded the project to Jacksonville-based design build firm Haskell Co., headquartered just across the St. Johns River from the project site. That proximity has proved more than a little fortuitous for Haskell Co. In fact, location is the main reason the company won the lucrative Riverwalk contract.

A review of city bid documents and procedures shows that Haskell defeated its chief competitor chiefly because of its Jacksonville address. Although American Bridge Co. has extensive experience in marine work — and Haskell has little — American Bridge lost out in a weighted ranking that puts location above all other considerations.

The city began accepting bids to demolish and rebuild the Riverwalk in early 2010. Six qualified design build firms joined the bidding. The bid specifications called for each company to be ranked in nine categories, including Competence, Financial Responsibility, Innovation and Record of Professional Accomplishments.

With the exception of the Proximity category, American Bridge skunked the competition, getting 225 out of a maximum 300 points. However, it was outgunned by Haskell, which finished with 237 points. The deciding factor was Proximity, a category in which Haskell got a score of 30. American Bridge, based in Tampa, got a score of 1.

The disparity raises questions not just about the fairness of the bid process, but the quality of its results. Excluding the Proximity category, American Bridge outscored Haskell 224 to 207. In other words, by all other measurements, it was the most qualified bidder.

A look at the history of both Haskell and American Bridge offers some reason why. The Haskell Co. was formed in 1965, American Bridge in 1900. The latter’s maritime experience includes construction of some of the largest and longest span bridges, including the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, the $400 million Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington, D.C., and the Orinoco Bridge in Venezuela — the longest suspension bridge in South America. Haskell’s bridge work is minimal by comparison — mostly pedestrian bridges, including the Dale Earnhardt pedestrian bridge over I-92 in Daytona, and the I-95 pedestrian bridge linking Wolfson Children’s Hospital to Nemours Children’s Clinic.

American Bridge has worked extensively on marine projects like piers, docks and pipe pilings, projects far more complicated than the Southbank Riverwalk, including piers built for the Navy submarine base at Groton, Conn. Haskell’s promotional literature shows only a handful of maritime projects.

The first category of the Riverwalk bid ranking was Competence, with a maximum score of 50. The three members of the Competitive Sealed Proposed Evaluation Committee gave Haskell 45 and American Bridge 44. Here’s a breakdown of the other categories:

Current work load, maximum 20 p

American Bridge 19, Haskell 10

Financial responsibility, maximum 40

American Bridge 40, Haskell 35

Volume of current work load, max. 10

American Bridge 10, Haskell 10

Demonstrated commitment to small/

minority business, max. 30

American Bridge 15, Haskell 8

Safety and environmental compliance, max. 20

American Bridge 18, Haskell 19

Work approach, max. 60

American Bridge 50, Haskell 54

Record of professional accomplishments,

max. 40

American Bridge 28, Haskell 26

The final category included a handful of subsections, including rankings related to initial budget estimates, change orders and the reliability of the firm’s Guaranteed Maximum Price. However, the Riverwalk project has no Guaranteed Maximum Price. The city has earmarked $15 million for the project, but the contract signed by the city on March 4, 2011 specifies that the GMP will be determined at a later date in a separate agreement between Haskell and the city.

This, of course, raises questions of its own — and can’t help but evoke memories of a previous Haskell project. In 1993, Haskell was awarded the city contract to renovate the Gator Bowl into the current NFL football stadium. Preston Haskell, the company’s founder and chairman, was also a founding partner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The stadium renovation contract was awarded without being put out to bid, and with an ever-increasing price tag. Initially pegged to cost $60 million — a price that Haskell officials cosigned — the renovation cost skyrocketed to $145 million when all was said and done. That contract also had no up-front GMP.

Is it reasonable to expect that the city and Haskell will stay within the $15 million earmarked for the Southbank Riverwalk? History suggests not. As with The Shipyards, the Duval County Courthouse and the River City Renaissance project, one can expect City Hall to look back and say, “We goofed.”

Awarding American Bridge the contract may not have yielded a different result. But the way the city’s bid process is structured all but ensures we’ll never know. According to American Bridge Manager and Senior Engineer Bob Wind, the company’s operations manager, Hank van Zuthem, expressed surprise and disappointment at the bid awards meeting. He didn’t file a formal complaint, but Wind says that the fact that the company was 17 points ahead of Haskell outside of the Proximity category speaks to skewed city priorities. Proximity might be a worthwhile metric, he conceded, but it should not constitute 10 percent of the score. As it is, Wind says, the process “puts firms outside of Jacksonville at a disadvantage.” Asked if he thought the process was designed to be manipulated in that way, he says, “The facts speak for themselves.”

Marvin Edward

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