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UW-Madison loses out on Gordon Commons contract request (UPDATE)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s proposed $34.1 million, 103,000-square-foot Gordon Commons project would replace the existing Gordon Commons building. (Rendering courtesy of the University of Wisconsin)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s proposed $34.1 million, 103,000-square-foot Gordon Commons project would replace the existing Gordon Commons building. (Rendering courtesy of the University of Wisconsin)

By Paul Snyder

The University of Wisconsin System must follow state contracting laws for UW-Madison’s Gordon Commons project despite arguments that to do so threatens timelines and student safety.

Wisconsin law requires state building projects follow a multiple-prime contracting system, under which the state contracts with each major construction discipline and opens all bids at once to ensure projects are awarded fairly.

But David Miller, UW System vice president of capital planning and budget, said the system can lead to delays because one contractor’s issues can affect work by others. Furthermore, he said, there is no single point of responsibility because each major contractor has a contract with the state.

The UW-Madison is struggling with the multiple-prime system, said Paul Evans, director of university housing. For instance, he said, the school needs to finish the Chadbourne Hall renovation by August to accommodate returning students, but some subcontractors are disputing the project schedule. Evans said there are concerns about finishing the project on time.

“When this happens in a multiple-prime scenario, instead of it being a sit-down, you need to do this type of meeting,” he said. “It always becomes a negotiation.”

Scheduling is a sticking point the UW-Madison wants to avoid with the Gordon Commons project. The $34.1 million, 103,000-square-foot replacement of the existing Gordon Commons building will take 15 months.

The new building must be completed in summer 2012 to give staff members time to move material from the old building to the new, Evans said. Adding to the project’s complexity, he said, is the new building will be built within 20 feet of the old, leaving little room to move construction equipment for the estimated 3,000 students who use the dining hall daily.

“How do we manage students going in and out of the building if we have to negotiate with all these different primes?” Evans said. “It would be easier if there was one point of contact where we could just say, ‘You are responsible for all these students.'”

The UW System sought a waiver for the project to allow a single-prime contract, under which the state contracts with one primary contractor that manages the bids, contracts and work of each subcontractor. The process, Miller said, creates one point of responsibility.

But the state Building Commission on Wednesday voted 4-3 to reject the request.

“It isn’t like it’s residential housing or has a timing issue,” said state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, a commission member. “One building will stay open until the other one’s ready.

“It’s not a negative vote against the project. We just said, ‘Do it under the normal procedures.'”

The Building Commission, historically, has accepted arguments for alternate delivery methods. According to Division of State Facilities records, the commission since 1997 granted 185 waivers for alternate methods, 61 of which were for single-prime contracts.

Kaufert said the multiple-prime system creates transparency because the public can see the bids on every major contract and know Wisconsin is getting the best deal. He said lawmakers need a good reason to give that up, and the UW System did not make a strong enough case.

“I think there’s a growing concern amongst members,” Kaufert said of the commission, “that at every meeting we’re being asked to waive requirements.”

Lawmakers last session drafted a bill that would have expanded state law to allow single-prime contracts. The bill never made it to the Senate or Assembly floor.

Evans said Gordon Commons will proceed on its projected schedule and the university will make the area as safe as possible. But he said if project delays threaten to run up costs, it is unlikely one contractor will take the blame.

“A lot of times, you can’t hold one person responsible, because they’ll say, ‘It’s not our fault, we were behind because of them,'” Evans said. “If you can’t find someone to bear the costs, it goes to the students.”

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