NC: Work on Raleigh’s BRT line still hasn’t begun months after groundbreaking. Here’s why.

June 7, 2024
Seven months after Raleigh held a groundbreaking ceremony for its first bus rapid transit line, the city is having trouble finding someone to build it.

Seven months after Raleigh held a groundbreaking ceremony for its first bus rapid transit line, the city is having trouble finding someone to build it.

Not one company answered the city’s call for offers to construct the 5.4-mile BRT line along New Bern Avenue. The project includes building 10 bus stations — with elevated, covered platforms — and would be worth tens of millions of dollars.

City officials had hoped construction would be underway by July. Instead, they’re looking at ways to tweak how the project is put out for bid a second time to try to entice contractors.

The first BRT line in NC

The New Bern line will be the first bus rapid transit in North Carolina. BRT combines the lower cost of a bus with some of the benefits of light rail, including level boarding, pre-paid tickets and dedicated lanes and priority at intersections that keep the buses from being bogged down in traffic.

The city plans to eventually build four BRT lines radiating from downtown. The first one, along New Bern Avenue, will connect downtown with a new park-and-ride lot near New Hope Road.

The city advertised the project March 5 and set a deadline for bids of May 7. Several contractors showed interest, by attending a meeting, reviewing the plans online and asking questions, said Sam Brewer, the project manager for the city’s engineering services department.

“We had people that were asking lots of specific, formal questions that were indicating to us that they were preparing bids,” Brewer said in an interview.

Contractors are cautious

But in the end, the city received no offers. Contractors told city officials a big reason they abstained is that they weren’t sure they could complete the work in two years, as the contract would have required, Brewer said.

“It’s a different kind of project; it’s the first BRT project in the state,” he said. “So the contractor base here has not seen that, so they were approaching it with caution.”

Another factor is that companies that build roads and public works are busy, as the state and federal governments pour money into infrastructure.

With so many projects to choose from, contractors can afford to sit some out, especially if they’re worried about having enough workers and equipment to finish the job.

City will try again soon

The city hopes to persuade some contractors to bid when it again advertises the BRT line in about a month. It will give prospective bidders more than two years to finish the work, though the exact time has not yet been set, Brewer said.

Another possible change would be to split the work up, separating the bus stations from the paving, for example. Cutting the project up into smaller pieces might allow companies to bid on what they’re best at or have capacity to do now, said David Eatman, the city’s transit administrator.

“Sometimes that may increase bidders, but it can create headaches,” Eatman said in an interview. “Because then you have multiple contractors in a single corridor trying do things on their own timeline. So you just have to be careful.”

The city would give contractors six to eight weeks to respond to the next bid proposal. It generally takes another two months before a contract is signed. Construction wouldn’t start until sometime in the fall, pushing the start of service back to late 2026 or into 2027, depending on the terms of the contract.

The city expects to spend about $97 million on the New Bern Avenue BRT line. That includes planning, the cost of right-of-way and the purchase of special articulated buses with doors on both sides and lower floors to ease loading and unloading at the stations.

Utility work continues

City officials won’t disclose what they think the construction portion of the project will cost before it is put out to bid.

While construction of the BRT line has been on hold, utility companies have been at work along New Bern Avenue moving their lines, so they’ll be out of the way when contractors do get started, Brewer said.

Brewer and Eatman say that based on conversations with contractors they’re confident that changing the project specs will entice some to bid on it.

“We’ll get it done,” Eatman said. “This is our first one, and it’s going to take a little bit of extra work, but I feel confident that we’ll be very successful.”

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