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Minnesota DOT works on listening skills

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — Minnesota Department of Transportation officials are promising to turn on their listening ears.

After launching an effort earlier this year to prevent costly plan errors and project rebids, department now say they are making progress by improving communication with contractors, among other things.

The effort, known as Project Development Process Improvement, stems in part from at least two high-profile projects that had to be rebid last summer because of errors in MnDOT’s construction plans.

As part of the improvement plan, MnDOT hired national transportation consultant Tom Warne to study how the department could improve its project development process, including its construction plans.

Warne surveyed 100 contractors, subcontractors and suppliers that do business with MnDOT. The survey found a consensus that better communication between contractors and MnDOT would help reduce errors and time-consuming rebids.

“As part of that survey that Tom Warne did, there was a perception that we are at the meetings but not always listening,” said Tom Ravn, MnDOT’s state construction engineer. “We are trying to improve our communication.”

A pair of recent projects — a four-lane expansion of Highway 60 in southern Minnesota and the Highway 23 Paynesville bypass — show what can go awry when plans and communication misfire.

In May, MnDOT called for new bids on the Highway 60 project because of an error in construction plans pertaining to the amount of earthwork required. Black River Falls-based Hoffman Construction Co. was the original low bidder. In July, Sleepy Eye, Minn.-based Mathiowetz Construction won the rebid with $17.8 million, which was slightly less than the original Hoffman bid.

But the rebid delayed the start of construction and required additional time for contractors and the department.

Shawn Hoffman, project manager for Hoffman Construction, said there has been good communication between his company and MnDOT. But, in the case of Highway 60, he said it was frustrating to have to bid a second time after initially being awarded the contract.

“I don’t think we truly knew what the problem was or how it occurred,” Hoffman said. “It would have been nice if they would have called us before they rejected the bid, but it’s their right to reject the bids for whatever reason they want.”

The Highway 23 project, meanwhile, was rebid earlier this year because of computational errors in the plans, according to MnDOT. After the second round of bidding, MnDOT awarded the contract to Angora, Minn.-based KGM Contractors for $32.2 million — about $800,000 more than the original cost.

That $800,000 amount is a fraction of this year’s $1.3 billion spent on 283 road construction projects in Minnesota, but in an era of state budget deficits every dollar counts. Last year, MnDOT awarded $1.4 billion in contracts for 223 road construction projects.

A specific concern of contractors has been getting timely and helpful answers from MnDOT. For example, the department’s standard answer to a contractor’s question about a project’s scope or plans is, “Bid the job as you see it.”

Tim Worke, highway director for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, acknowledged the department can’t give any bidder a competitive advantage by relaying information that other bidders may not have. At the same time, he said, the department could do better than to just say, “Bid it as you see it.”

“Sometimes that is the best answer,” Worke said, “and sometimes they can do better than that in terms of providing a little better insight or better understanding” of what they want from bidders.

One of the challenges is timing. Questions about plans frequently come to the department just a day or two before the scheduled bid date, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for assessment, Ravn said. In that case, it may be appropriate to delay the letting by a few days.

Still, contractors bring up legitimate questions about MnDOT’s project plans and “we need to listen” to those concerns, Ravn said. If the concern is big enough, it may justify an addendum, he added.

“We have a good relationship with contractors, and we want to improve it if we can,” Ravn said.

Worke credited MnDOT for trying to improve the process.

MnDOT lets numerous contracts every month, Worke said, and there are always going to be errors. Still, he said, “as long as you have open communication and understanding, you are going to be able to work through those things.”

One comment

  1. I would be real interested to know whether these plans were designed by in-house (MNDOT) engineers, or if they were consultant-designed. Is there any way to get this info?

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