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Local bidders get shot at federal project

Bids would have been due Wednesday for the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center building addition in La Crosse. (Image courtesy of Google Maps)

Bids would have been due Wednesday for the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center building addition in La Crosse. (Image courtesy of Google Maps)

By Sean Ryan

Local contractors are welcoming the chance to openly bid on a La Crosse stimulus project that was supposed to be limited to six out-of-state companies.

“The amount of work will increase significantly since we will have more control over everything,” said Dan Graham, business manager for Fowler & Hammer Inc., La Crosse. “We will be able to bid it much tighter.”

The $5 million to $6 million project to expand a U.S. Geological Survey building was the second U.S. Department of Interior contract in the La Crosse area to come under fire.

On both contracts, the department limited bidding to companies that, through a previous competitive bid, were selected for multiyear, ongoing federal construction contracts.

Arrowhead Contracting Inc., Lenexa, Kan., won a $4.9 million contract to build a visitor center in Onalaska. But the Department of Interior this week canceled bidding for the La Crosse project so it can be openly bid in May.

“The whole point here is really one based on fairness, just giving people the opportunity to submit a bid,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who lobbied to have the contracts openly bid.

Representatives from the six out-of-state companies were unavailable or would not comment on the La Crosse project.

Bids would have been due Wednesday for the USGS building addition in La Crosse, said Jack Waide, deputy center director for the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center in La Crosse. He said USGS officials in Virginia originally ordered his office to limit bidding to the pre-selected contractors because the department had an April deadline to award a contract.

“It wasn’t made in bad faith,” Waide said of the decision to limit bidding. “It was just made from the perspective of national managers who felt that was the best way to go.”

But with the decision to openly bid the contract, the deadline for an award is pushed back to June, Waide said. Contractors still must finish the building addition by the end of 2011, he said, so there might be a rush to complete the roof and walls before winter.

Waide said he does not expect the rebid or scheduling changes to result in higher prices.

“Right now, the La Crosse area has been slow to recover from the recession,” he said, “and a lot of contractors are anxious for work, and I think that has kept contract prices reasonable.”

Graham, who lobbied for the open bidding, predicted local contractors can deliver a better price than the federal agency would have gotten through limited bidding.

“We believe in the local economy and the local industry,” he said.

Graham said the company can bid lower if it self-performs some of the work as a general. The company bids higher when it has to work with other subcontractors, he said, because there could be costs tied to other builders making mistakes.

Bill Lanzel, vice president of Coulee Region Mechanical Contractors Inc., La Crosse, said the lower prices stem from higher competition and lower contingency costs. He said his company can lower its bids when it is working with and competing against familiar contractors.

“I don’t care if it’s us or whoever,” he said, “all of the general contractors around here and the subs, we pretty much get along. I might hate some of them and some of them might hate me, but we get along and we trust them.”

Kind said the project may still go to an out-of-state bidder, but he said he wants the shift on this contract to set the trend for open bidding on future stimulus projects.

“The competition is good,” he said, “and I think the more bids you can get on them, the more choices the agency will have.”

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