CA: Metro Picks Skanska Venture to Build First Phase of Westside Subway

July 25--Three construction firms with what officials called a track record of success on Los Angeles County transit projects should build the first phase of the Westside subway, officials said Thursday, despite complaints from a competing bidder that it could do the job for nearly $200 million less.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority board voted 9 to 3 to award the $1.6-billion Purple Line extension contract to a joint venture led by Skanska USA, citing the firm's experience in local transit -- including building three other Metro rail projects -- and its ambitious schedule that calls for finishing the project 10 months early.

But some elected officials balked at the price difference in bids, saying a $1.4-billion proposal by another firm, Dragados USA, warranted further consideration.

"I'm having a hard time leaving $192 million on the table," L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe said during the meeting. "This process is extremely flawed."

When the Westside subway opens, scheduled for 2023, the 3.9-mile, $2.7-billion tunnel will link downtown Los Angeles to the Miracle Mile. Heavy construction is slated to begin by the end of the year. The project's budget is now $288 million more than Metro's original estimate.

During a lengthy and sometimes testy board discussion Thursday, Metro staff members criticized the Dragados proposal, saying the U.S. affiliate of a major Spanish construction firm seemed unfamiliar with the project requirements and managers did not seem to work well with Metro's staff. Dragados' plan to complete work five months early, Metro said, had the highest likelihood of delays and cost overruns.

Metro board member Ara Najarian, who voted to approve the contract with Skanska, an affiliate of a Swedish firm, said he was concerned about Dragados' performance on a major tunneling project in Washington state. The world's largest tunnel-digging machine -- owned by Dragados -- has been broken down and stuck under downtown Seattle for nearly a year, delaying a major highway project.

In a 14-page formal complaint filed with Metro and obtained by The Times, Dragados executives said Metro staff gave "unfair and misleading" advice during the bidding process. Transit agency staff mischaracterized Dragados' global experience, they wrote, ignoring the 150 miles of subway tunnels the firm has built across the world. They added that they are committed to finishing the highway tunnel in Seattle.

Hearing that "the winning team somehow works better together" shouldn't matter "when you could save $192 million," Chris Ward, Dragados' executive vice president of major projects, said during the Thursday meeting.

A group of Metro employees will evaluate Dragados' formal complaint and another complaint filed by South Korea-based Samsung, which is part of another bidding team. Skanska will not proceed with construction until the investigation is complete.

By choosing Skanska, Metro is "putting all its eggs in one basket," said Knabe, whose son is a partner at a lobbying firm representing Dragados. Andrew Veis, Knabe's assistant press secretary, said that "other than being father and son, there's no connection there."

Skanska also is the lead builder on the second phase of the Expo Line, which will connect Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles and is expected to open in 2016. Additionally, the firm was recently selected as a construction partner on the $1.46-billion Regional Connector, designed to close the two-mile rail gap between Union Station and downtown's Financial District.

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Copyright 2014 - Los Angeles Times

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