Metra Industries, the primary contractor chosen for the project by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, “has struggled to meet contractual requirements and has produced some work that has been unacceptable,” wrote WSSC director of communications Jim Neustadt in an email response to Councilmember Roger Berliner’s office.
Neustadt went on to write that the problems with the project “could serve as an example of why the lowest-bid contracting is not necessarily always the best.”
The constant digging has left the busy thoroughfare near the heart of downtown Bethesda a jumbled mess of steel plates, traffic cones and construction vehicles. It’s also meant a host of complaints to Berliner’s office about late-night construction and daytime lane closures.
Last Friday, Berliner sent a letter to the State Highway Administration expressing his concern about the project and asked the agency to reconsider its permitting process. On Wednesday, Neustadt provided Berliner’s office and the SHA with a recap of the project and what’s next in the process.
On Thursday, Neustadt told BethesdaNow.com that WSSC will send out a similar summary to affected customers with a letter in the next day or two.
“As I said in the letter, we are pursuing appropriate contractual remedies,” Neustadt said. “Our top priority is getting this done so we can get our customers back to some sense of normalcy.”
Neustadt said final paving on the project should be done in late June.
The primary goal of the project is to replace a 20-inch diameter pipe under Bradley Boulevard, near Arlington Road. WSSC said the project was challenging because of adverse weather conditions, a large amount of existing utilities, storm water drainage, restricted working schedules and heavy traffic.
But part of the problem was due to the contractor’s work, Neustadt told public officials.
“We are proceeding with remedies in line with the contract,” Neustadt wrote.
On Thursday, Neustadt said he didn’t want to get into more specifics about the contractual obligations.
In the email, he wrote, “WSSC is working itself away from this type of contracting and has recently been utilizing other selection strategies that hopefully will yield not only a better product, but better overall value for our customers’ dollars.”
Since the new water main was put into place in October, testing showed the pipe had many leaks, according to WSSC. That meant Bradley Boulevard had to be re-excavated so crews could locate and repair those leaks.
With the pipe unable to operate, Metra wasn’t allowed to tie in the new main to the existing pipe system, set up connections to properties nearby or hook it up to fire hydrants.
Neustadt said the leaks in the pipe have been located and repaired, which will allow Metra to move forward with the rest of the project.
Work that still must be completed includes the installation of two pipes on Arlington Road — a 96-foot long, roughly 10-inch diameter pipe and a 20-foot long, roughly 4-inch diameter pipe.
Crews must also complete seven tie-ins to existing mains, including a key connection to a 60-inch main. Each connection requires a water main shutdown. Neustadt said the contractor plans to perform shutdowns two at a time. Also, the work will happen at night to minimize the impact on customers.
The contractor must also connect the new pipe to two gas stations, an apartment complex and a house before final testing and chlorination.
Weather permitting, the final patching of the pavement will be completed by mid-May with the final mill and overlay paving done by the end of June.
“The current patching is only temporary asphalt which hasn’t held up well due to the extreme winter,” Neustadt wrote.
In a regular monthly email sent to subscribers on Thursday, Berliner wrote he was grateful WSSC saw the project as an example of how lowest-bid contracting doesn’t always work.
“Just sorry our residents have had to pay the price for learning these lessons,” Berliner said.