The Massachusetts Department of Transportation last July confirmed a suspicion that many a disgruntled commuter had harbored: The disruptive $255 million project to rebuild the historical Longfellow Bridge was going to take much longer than expected.
More than a year later, both the department and its contractor say they aren’t sure how much the bridge, now scheduled to open by September 2018, will ultimately cost — or who will pick up the bill should there be overruns.
“We know it’s not going to cost less,” Thomas Tinlin, the state’s highway administrator, said in an interview.
But Tinlin also said in a written statement he does not expect the cost to increase past the $303 million the state has already budgeted for the entire project, which includes money for contingencies and incentives for the contractor meant to keep the project on schedule, among other things. That’s about 19 percent more than the $255 million contract the state often cites as the cost of the massive rebuild, currently one of the department’s most ambitious projects.
“Based on what we know today, we are within the encumbered value of the project,” he said.
Construction on the bridge, a crucial connection between Boston and Cambridge over the Charles River, has upended commutes for thousands of residents since the summer of 2013. Officials initially said work on the 110-year-old span, which has remained open for pedestrians, bikers, Red Line riders, and some traffic, would take three years — but officials last summer announced a two-year delay.
Both the Transportation Department and White-Skanska-Consigli, the consortium that won the design and construction contract, acknowledged they are bracing for disputes over who should pay for extra work that has cropped up on the complicated project. Last year, state officials said they could ask the contractor to pick up the costs related to the delay.
Peter White, president of J.F. White Contracting, said the final price may not be revealed until the project is complete. He said the consortium will fight back if the state believes it should pick up all the overruns.
“That’s always the starting point of MassDOT, and it’s our obligation to defend whatever we feel is justified compensation for non-contractual work,” he said.
Tinlin also said he expects debates over the extra work, but he said that’s typical of most contracts.
“There are things that they may submit that we will say, ‘That was something you should have anticipated’ and we deny the claim, or there might be something that we agree that says, ‘This surprised everybody,’ so let’s negotiate a settlement on that portion,” he said.
As of early July, the agency said, it had paid about $163 million to the contractor. And the consortium has been filing requests for payment for work it deems outside of its contract: So far, the agency has approved about $9 million in extra payments for the project, but officials declined to say how much the contractor requested.
The approved extra costs include everything from paying police officers who patrol the site (about $1.23 million) to redesigning and adding extra features to a steam pipe that runs under the bridge to Massachusetts General Hospital (about $1.05 million).
State officials and White-Skanska-Consigli have blamed the “uniqueness” of the project for the two-year delay. But from the start, contractors knew they would have to go above and beyond to keep the bridge open for a working Red Line track and to hew to historical accuracy for the iconic bridge, which carries about 28,000 vehicles a day when it’s fully operational.
That has forced workers to use outdated technologies. For example, the agency produced new steel columns for certain sections of the bridge visible to the public. Those were created in fabrication workshops across New England, but workers had to put thousands of individual rivets on the columns. The riveting method, which involves heating metal shafts up to 2,000 degrees and jamming them into holes, was largely replaced by less dangerous and time-consuming processes after the 1960s, such as using bolts or welding.
But officials said they could not prepare for some of the surprises associated with that old technology. As William Shea, a vice president for J.F. White Contracting, pointed out some of the smooth new rivets on the columns beneath the bridge on a recent afternoon, he said workers had to deal with “nuances” they hadn’t considered.
For example, the extreme heat during the riveting process would damage the paint, Shea said, so they had to add extra layers.
In another case, federal rules required that, for historical accuracy, contractors had to use bolts that resemble rivets, instead of welding, on buckle plates of the bridge. That prompted a redesign and the purchase and installation of 25,000 additional bolts.
The famed “salt-and-pepper” towers, which are being reconstructed to become more stable, have also been a source of delays: Officials found contaminated soil underneath their foundations.
Contractors had to determine whether to excavate all or some of the contaminated sand. Ultimately, they decided that they would redesign the foundation of the towers instead, so the sand would not shift under the towers — but the additional design added time.
Tinlin said that the agency wasn’t aware of such issues before the project started because it would have been “intrusive” to extensively check the soil beneath the towers or remove rivets to inspect the quality.
“You’d be compromising the safety of the bridge,” he said. “We start taking it apart, we’d start compromising the structural integrity of the structure. We’d have to start shutting down portions of that bridge down, and quite frankly, could have led to an emergency situation on our side.”
Officials say they are eager to finish the project quickly to make sure taxpayers and commuters aren’t more inconvenienced than they need to be. White said that the contractor is working with the Transportation Department on initiatives that can cut down on the delays they’ve already announced.
“That will mitigate our need to ask for the kind of money we’d need to ask for if we didn’t,” he said.