SACRAMENTO — To get Southern California roads and freeways back up to speed quickly after the Northridge quake--a job that will require $800 million in rebuilding and repairs--Caltrans officials did not just trim back on bureaucratic red tape.
They sliced through it.
On the day of the quake, working at times by flashlight in a Downtown office that lost its power, supervisors began approving emergency no-bid contracts to remove damaged bridges and shore up shaky ones.
And in less than three weeks, they issued the first contracts for major reconstruction of the Santa Monica Freeway and fallen stretches of the Golden State Freeway.
Using innovative bidding procedures never tested on such a scale, Caltrans is moving ahead so quickly that some contractors worry whether they will be able to get enough of the steel reinforcing bars and other materials needed to complete the jobs on time.
Contractors who get their work done early will earn bonuses of up to $200,000 a day, giving them every incentive to move as quickly as possible. Every day beyond the deadline will cost them $200,000.
Unlike less urgent contracts, the quake-related ones make no allowance for time lost because of weather.
The combination of high-speed bidding and the incentive-disincentive contracts have brought an unusual level of anxiety and risk to the firms invited to bid.
"Because of the time constraints and not allowing for bad weather days, you're really playing a game of roulette with the weather," said Kenneth L. Gibson, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of California.
The joke among contractors, Gibson said, is that after bid awards the losers say: "The bad news is I didn't get the bid," while the winner responds: "The bad news is I won the bid. Now it's, oh my God, what do I do now?"
State highway officials say that while accelerating the bureaucratic machinery, they are still insisting on the same standards of workmanship, worker safety and minority hiring that are required under state and federal law for all construction.
Preparing plans for new bridges built to the latest earthquake standards and getting construction started in the shortest time possible has been a remarkable achievement, said Caltrans office engineer P. Kay Griffin.
"I have a group of people here who thrive working under pressure," said Griffin, who coordinated the bidding procedures for repairing the earthquake damage.
Planning and bidding procedures that usually would have taken six months or longer are being completed in days, she said. Instead of listing and advertising these large jobs to encourage broad competition, Caltrans is inviting small numbers of selected contractors to bid on each.
Instead of giving bidders up to four months to bid a large job, Caltrans gave them only a few days.
Instead of waiting as long as a month between bid openings and the execution of a contract, state officials are opening bids and approving contracts on the same day.
Instead of allowing up to 15 days for contractors to start the job after the bid is awarded, they are expected to begin within 24 hours.
All the major contracts require the bid winners to have crews working around the clock, seven days a week.
And on dozens of smaller jobs--to remove debris, bring down damaged bridges and shore up shaky structures--Caltrans has dispensed with competitive bidding entirely. Department officials are picking contractors to do the work on a standard pay schedule. Some of these no-bid jobs are worth more than $1 million.
Despite the short-circuiting of normal bidding procedures, there has been relatively little grousing among contractors.
That is partly because Caltrans officials have tried to spread the work around among companies that have track records on Caltrans highway projects. They have favored companies that have done extensive work in the Los Angeles area. And they have insisted that prime contractors hire more than the usual number of "disadvantaged business"' subcontractors--firms run by minorities, women and disabled veterans. Caltrans usually asks that 20% of a job be done by such disadvantaged businesses, but they are asking prime contractors to aim for 40% on the quake jobs.
"We still get criticized," said Caltrans' chief bridge engineer, James E. Roberts. "One contractor called because we didn't invite him to bid on the Santa Monica Freeway. But I told him, we had him down for Gavin Canyon (replacing a fallen section of I-5)."
Roberts outlined the criteria used for the bid invitations. "They had to be large companies doing things in Los Angeles. We had to know they could do things of this size. . . . There are only so many bridge construction people in the state."