ASCENSION PARISH, LA (WAFB) - The company that recently received the contract to repair the Sunshine Bridge has a long history of falling behind on other highway construction projects and already owes the state more than a half-million dollars in fines — a tab that continues to grow as motorists dodge orange cones and sit in traffic.
Homeowners who live along the Louisiana 431 curve in Gonzales have been looking at unfinished roadway construction for nearly two years. The state decided to change the design of the sharp curve between Airline Highway and Weber City Road after several deadly accidents. But the people who live there said the construction crews dug their yards then suddenly stopped working.
“No work; sloppy work. There’s been weeks without any activity at all,” homeowner Billy Reeves said.
Attempting to drive in and out of their neighborhood has been a nightmare, Reeves and his neighbors said. One resident even took photos of his daughter’s school bus after it got stuck in the remnants of the demolished roadway.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development hired contractor Coastal Bridge Co. to do the work. The company was supposed to finish LA-431 in January 2017 — it’s still not done.
“I’m not sure why we’ve been waiting over a year to have our roads fixed,” homeowner Cory Ranallo said.
State DOTD officials said Coastal Bridge is responsible for the work and its schedule. They added that because the company failed to finish on time, Coastal is being fined each day it is overdue. As of Oct. 12, the total fines levied against the LA-431 contract has reached over $25,000.
DELAYS ALL ACROSS SOUTH LOUISIANA
WAFB’s 9News Investigators dug deeper and learned that since 2012, Coastal Bridge has consistently fallen behind on other roadway projects to the point where the state has levied late fees of up to $3,000 per day.
A project to overlay asphalt on U.S. 190 in Livingston Parish has $45,000 in fines. Coastal Bridge Co. was suppose to complete the work this summer, but delays prompted a late-fee rate of $3,000 a day, which was docked from the contract, records show.
Road work on Greenwell Springs Road and on Perkins Road and Siegen Lane has stretched beyond two years and racked up over $75,000 in late fines so far, according to DOTD records.
A contract to put up a cable barrier along a short stretch of Interstate 10 in West Baton Rouge Parish also began more than two years ago. Coastal finally finished it this September — 166 days past deadline — with a total of $136,000 in late fees.
Another job requiring asphalt overlay on Lousiana 31 in Breaux Bridge is 34 days overdue with fees eclipsing $50,000 as of Oct. 12.
And the road doesn’t end there. Coastal Bridge has left its mark slowly across the state. In Lafourche, Pointe Coupee, St. Bernard, Jefferson, Terrebonne, Acadia, Evangeline, Iberia, Jefferson Davis and elsewhere — 24 separate roadway projects — Coastal has failed to meet deadlines, racking up a total of more than $750,000 in fines since 2012, state records show.
WILL THE STATE DO ANYTHING?
The 9News Investigators took these concerns to the head of Louisiana DOTD, Sec. Shawn Wilson. Wilson said that state law holds that the company that bids lowest on highway projects must be given the job.
“What I will tell you is that until state law tells me to hold those mistakes against companies who bid, I don't have the luxury of saying, ‘You didn't finish that job on time and so you get a ding or demerit in terms of how you compete,’” he said.
However, it appears that the DOTD already has such policies in place. The 9News Investigators found a clause in the Greenwell Springs project’s request for bids that appears to show Coastal should have been disqualified. The clause states that a contractor shall be immediately disqualified when its progress is deficient by at least 10 percent on two or more projects.
When shown a copy of the clause, Wilson could not a provide a clear explanation of why the DOTD did not abide by its own policy.
As long as Coastal and other contractors continue to pay the fines or have the surety bonds to cover them, they can continue to bid on jobs, he said.
“I don’t think we have the resources to shrink the competition we have for these jobs because you pay more when you have less competition,” Wilson said, “and that’s the economics of this business.”
As of last week, Coastal was behind on four separate projects in Louisiana, three of which are in the Greater Baton Rouge area. One is nearly 100 days past deadline. Meanwhile, Louisiana residents continue to have to dodge orange cones, bear with the noise and dust of work sites, and fight traffic far longer than they should have due to Coastal’s delays and the state’s inaction.
Now, the same company will be repairing the Sunshine Bridge after a crane struck and damaged it last month. Wilson said the state awarded the contract to Coastal because the company was already there working on another project. He said it was the quickest way to get the bridge fixed.
“What was unique about the Sunshine Bridge is we had a contractor there (already),” he said. “And the most expeditious way to do that was to affect it by change-order as opposed to going through an emergency bid process.”
A change-order is an amendment to an existing contract that typically occurs when additional work is needed.
The state has announced the Sunshine Bridge should be repaired and open to traffic by January, and Wilson said it could even be open sooner than that.
“I am very confident they will be able to manage and deliver that project,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are counting and we are calculating, and we are going to hold them accountable.”
Coastal Bridge Co. officials did not respond to requests for comment.