NEW ORLEANS -- As crews dig deep under Bourbon Street for the iconic rue’s most extensive facelift in decades, there are questions about the way Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration hired its contractor to perform a $6 million project that’s now expected to cost even more.
Rather than put the centerpiece of Landrieu’s $40 million citywide public safety plan out to bid as a capital project -- as is typically done for work of this size -- the city used an existing pavement maintenance contract to get the project started more quickly.
The three-year specialty pavement maintenance contract was put out to bid in December and the city selected Hard Rock Construction’s low bid of $3.9 million on Feb. 2. That was a little more than a week after Landrieu unveiled a public safety plan that included sprucing up Bourbon Street, fixing its long-standing drainage issues and converting it to a pedestrian mall.
But Hard Rock’s vice president, Jan Langford, said her company had no idea when it was selected that its pavement maintenance deal would be used to perform the far more involved Bourbon Street work.
The city’s director of Public Works, Mark Jernigan, acknowledged there’s a lot more to the Bourbon Street work than simple pavement maintenance.
“We got a lot of work we need to do,” Jernigan said. “The utilities under Bourbon Street are 90 years old. That's the last time the street has been fully reconstructed. We’re seeing a lot of water leaks -- an average of two waters leaks on every block, every year for the past 10 years. … What you see (when the work is done) will be smooth street, no standing water, no trip hazards, the sidewalks will be repaired and restored. So it will essentially be almost a brand-new street.”
Asked why such a complex and critical project would not be bid out separately as a capital project, Jernigan said there wasn’t enough time to go through such a long contract-procurement process.
He said the project needs to be finished by the end of the year. Asked what the rush was, he said it was important “to minimize the construction impacts and also to make sure it's integrated with the citywide public safety program.”
Asked if it had to be done by the end of the year to avoid construction during the city’s 300th anniversary celebrations in 2018, he repeated that it was important to finish the work as soon as possible.
Jernigan said it was entirely within his authority to use the generic maintenance contract for the Bourbon Street work and it complied with all state public bid laws. But it did require the city to get creative.
First, there are significant portions of the work that are not covered by the scope of the maintenance contract. For example, there’s no provision for handling the water lines running under Bourbon Street, and yet Hard Rock is handling the Sewerage and Water Board portion of the project.
Already, in the first block of Bourbon off Canal Street, Hard Rock’s team had to install two drainage devices called siphons. Jernigan said the city is calling on an engineer to determine if Hard Rock’s price is reasonable and comparing the cost to published average price lists before agreeing to pay.
And rather than issuing a single notice-to-proceed at the start of the project, as is normally done, Jernigan said the city is reviewing the costs and issuing notices to Hard Rock on a block-by-block basis.
What’s more, there are key parts of the Bourbon Street work that are covered by the generic maintenance contract, including roadway excavation and pavement removal, for which Hard Rock bid $0. Jernigan said the city will not pay Hard Rock for those items.
Hard Rock’s Langford said that’s to be expected. She said it’s not unusual to enter a $0 bid on items and build that price into other items.
“It’s not odd because you pay for them in other items,” she said. “If you excavate something, you have to put it back and you can make up for the price there.”
Hard Rock Construction and its owners have made many political contributions over the years, including $7,500 to Landrieu’s mayoral campaigns. But it didn’t play favorites in 2006, giving $2,000 to Landrieu and his opponent, incumbent Ray Nagin, in the final days of the close race that Nagin won.
Adding to the political intrigue with this project, Landrieu’s critics took to Facebook in recent days to complain that his cousin Renee Landrieu’s company, Landrieu Concrete and Cement Industries, had trucks on the job.
The city, Entergy, Hard Rock and Renee Landrieu all say the concrete firm is working for Entergy’s contractor, Boh Bros., and not for the city’s contractor, Hard Rock. Renee Landrieu said her concrete is being used only in the catch basins on Bourbon Street.
She also pointed out that nepotism and ethics laws do not prohibit cousins of public officials from holding contracts with that official’s agency. Still, she said, her company does not have any city contracts.