Northampton Co.: New plan floated to save area bridges
Northampton County owns no public roads, but it does own and maintain 115 bridges. According to a two-year old study by Keystone Crossroads, 25 percent of these county-owned bridges are structurally deficient, meaning they need repairs or replacement. Three have been closed. Bridge repairs are costly. The county budgets about $780,000 a year for bridge maintenance. In 2013, then-Executive John Stoffa persuaded Northampton County Council to float a $7.1 million bond that would only fix nine bridges. Three years later, Executive John Brown and council are pushing an innovative proposal that might, in time, permit the county to fix all of its bridges at a much cheaper cost. It’s called bridge bundling or P3, and is based on what PennDOT is already doing with state-owned bridges.
One of the 33 county-owned bridges affected by this plan is the stone-arched Meadows Bridge, located in Lower Saucon Township. It was built in 1858.
Council member Bob Werner was an early proponent of bridge bundling, arguing that it is both cheaper and more efficient. But county officials were unsuccessful in persuading Penn DOT to try it here. So Brown decided to use the state law, called P3, to enable the county to take on this project itself. Basically, the county will convey 33 bridges in need of replacement or repair to the General Purpose Authority (GPA). That agency has already sought bids for the project, and is ready to award the $34 million deal to Kriger Construction, which is located in Dickson City.
An unsuccessful bidder, Clearwater Construction, sued over the award, claiming that Kriger lacks the required PennDOT pre-qualifications and that there was improper influence. But Judge Craig Dally ruled that Clearwater, as a disappointed bidder, has no standing. His decision has been appealed, but Brown decided to move forward with the project. At their Oct. 6 meeting, council voted 7-0, with Ken Kraft abstaining, to adopt a resolution approving the bridge bundling project with GPA. They also introduced an ordinance formalizing the arrangement.
Kraft abstained because one of the painter union companies that he represents as a business agent does the painting for Kriger.
Shawn Langan, who chairs the GPA, told council that PennDOT was engaged in the selection process.
But did Kriger low-ball the county, i.e. give an artificially low bid to get the work and then have cost overruns? Its bid is $36 million, about half of what Clearwater bid.
Brown said that is unlikely to occur because he hired an independent engineering firm, Alfred Benesch and Company, to review any requests for additional money. John Lushis, GPA’s solicitor, said he went through painstaking efforts to insure that cost overruns will be minimized.
Lushis also answered questions about Kriger’s qualifications. “Kriger is known as PennDOT approved prime contractor,” he said, noting that he spoke twice with PennDOT and was assured that Kriger is qualified.
In addition to being qualified, Lushis told council that Kriger had better financing plans. Clearwater proposed financing its deal by having the county issue “certificates of participation” sold to the public, which leads to higher interest rates and a greater financial burden on the county. Kriger is using conventional financing. “[Clearwater] brought in a Lamborghini financing proposal when, essentially, a Buick would have been sufficient,” he said. “They over-financed it to death.”
Glenn Geissinger pointed out that the Kriger proposal is $1 million per bridge cheaper than Clearwater.
Brown told council this is only the beginning. “We’re addressing 33 bridges, but we have 99 to repair,” he said. He said once this work is complete, the county should move forward with another bridge bundling project every five years until all bridges are repaired.
Ken Kraft said under the proposed contract with Kriger, the county would have to pay for moving any utility that might have lines on a bridge. Lushis responded that no contractor would agree to bear that cost.
Kraft also raised questions about Kriger’s bank, FNCB, claiming that Solicitor Ryan Durkin’s father works there. Durkin responded that his father was a consultant there many years ago and was never employed by that bank. Kraft also asked, “Who owns FNCB? Louis DeNaples?”
Brown answered that he had no list of its stockholders.
In 2012, the Federal Reserve ordered DeNaples to resign as chair of the FNCB because of perjury charges that were later dropped. In 2013, a federal appeals court ordered that he be reinstated, calling the Federal Reserve’s decision “bizarre,” “untenable” and “scatter-shot” enforcement of the law.
Council President John Cusick, a teacher, was absent from the meeting because he was meeting with parents of his students.