By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – Wilson Bridge construction costs are not as likely to break the state’s transportation budget after the winning bid for the most difficult section of the bridge in the second round of bidding was only $18 million over estimates, according to the state transportation secretary.
The bid, Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari told members of the House Appropriations Transportation and the Environment subcommittee Tuesday, diminished staff stress and reduced strain on Maryland’s transportation budget.
“It’s been a series of near-death experiences,” Porcari said of the contract process.
The rest of the transportation budget has not fared as well as the bridge. Maryland has cut $600 million from the transportation budget for 2003 because of rising security costs and reduced revenue from gas and other taxes.
It’s uncertain if there will be other budget changes under the new administration of Gov.-elect Bob Ehrlich, who will become the state’s first Republican governor in more than 30 years in January, said Porcari.
Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, subcommittee chairman, said Ehrlich’s contacts in the now all-GOP-led Congress might help attract more federal funding for transportation and Sept. 11-related security costs.
“We should put some of those items in front of both those bodies,” he said.
Franchot has not spoken with Ehrlich about his transportation agenda.
But the Wilson Bridge contract process is the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak transportation picture.
Last year, the state received only one $860 million bid for the entire Wilson Bridge project – 75 percent over estimates.
Because so few companies can handle the difficult project, Porcari said, the state broke the bridge span, which connects southwest Prince George’s County to Alexandria, Va., into three contracts to increase competition and limit costs.
Five companies bid on the open-water portion of the bridge, with Pennsylvania-based American Bridge Co. winning the $186 million contract.
Many firms are capable of building the final two sections of the project, Porcari said, which should keep the project’s cost on budget.
Including sections of the bridge already contracted, the project is $9 million under estimates.
“We think we’ll get good competition on it,” Porcari said, “We have a very good chance with the other two contracts to get at or near the engineer’s estimate.”
The bridge is a year behind schedule, but Franchot said the state’s savings were worth the wait.
Despite the good news, Porcari told the committee that the Wilson Bridge still has significant funding problems that could cost the state millions.
The federal government has guaranteed only 88 percent of the $900 million pledged to Maryland’s portion of the project, leaving MDOT on the line for $108 million.
New projects will be cut, Porcari said, if the state cannot find General Fund money for the Wilson Bridge.
“We are absolutely counting on that General Fund money,” he said. “There is no Plan B.”