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Hope, stress mingle over I-94 work

Dustin Block

Estimator Nic Mianecki with Oak Creek-based Edgerton Contractors Inc. described the sea of Interstate 94 hopefuls as “overwhelming.”

About 150 contractors gathered Thursday for a mandatory pre-bid meeting on plans to rebuild sections of I-94 in Racine and Kenosha counties. Contractors estimated there was $80 million in work available, a huge amount for companies struggling with the recession.

The large crowd offered a visual of the competition that is lowering construction costs throughout the state, Mianecki said. It also pointed to the difficult question contractors are facing: How low do they go on their bids?

“It doesn’t make sense to get the work but put out the farm,” Mianecki said.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is expanding I-94 to eight lanes from the Mitchell Interchange in Milwaukee County to the Illinois border. It also is rebuilding interchanges and frontage roads along the interstate.

Stimulus money let WisDOT accelerate the project, creating a rush of work scheduled to begin May 18. The first projects, which were discussed at the pre-bid meeting, will be let April 28.

Irv Palmer, president of Manutec Inc., Milwaukee, said he hopes to get work building fences along the overpasses. He said he is excited by the competition.

“It’s healthy,” Palmer said. “It shows there’s interest. It shows it’s for real.”

Twenty prime contractors competing for the two main contracts — estimated at $20 million for the Racine County job and $60 million for the Kenosha work — attended the meeting, though not all were competing with each other.

Jim Hoffman, president of Hoffman Construction Co., Black River Falls, said his company plans to form a joint venture with Trierweiler Construction & Supply Co. Inc., Marshfield, to bid on the jobs.

Hoffman said the joint venture is needed because of the projects’ size. Hoffman would have a hard time self-performing 30 percent of the work – a federal requirement – without partnering with Trierweiler, he said.

But the partnership did little to ease the tension that comes with competing for millions of dollars in work, he said.

“It’s stressful,” Hoffman said.

Other contractors agreed while also acknowledging they thrive on the competition.

“Look around the room. That’s why we’re all here,” said Dan Kucza, a survey manager with Kapur & Associates Inc., Milwaukee. “If we didn’t like the competition, we’d do something different.”

Kucza, whose company is competing for land surveying work, said he does not see anything special about the I-94 job. Even though more contractors are involved, it’s similar to every other bidding process, he said.

“It’s a dogfight on every job,” Kucza said. “That’s how the system is set up. It’s supposed to be like this.”

But even if people like the competition, it can be a painful process. Mianecki said Edgerton recently lost a bid on an earthwork contract by less than one-half percent.

Kucza said even some of the state’s largest construction companies will get outbid on the I-94 contracts.

Despite losing out on bids, both said there’s an enduring optimism that comes with the competition.
“You’ve got to stay hopeful,” Mianecki said.

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