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Idaho Sued By Company That Lost Highway Contract

Sat December 10, 2005 - West Edition
John Miller - ASSOCIATED PRESS



BOISE, ID (AP) The company that lost out on a contract worth at least $15 million to manage Idaho’s largest highway project has sued, alleging that Idaho Transportation Department board members broke state and federal laws by using the bid winners’ local ties to justify giving them the contract.

Parsons Brinckerhoff said Washington Group International and CH2M Hill Inc. got the contract because they had backed the $1.2-billion project in the 2005 Legislature, had connections to state lawmakers and because the companies were “better known politically,” according to the 4th District Court suit filed against the state and the Transportation Department.

Washington Group is based in Boise, while CH2M Hill is in Denver.

Parsons Brinckerhoff is New York-based, while its partner, HDR Engineering, is in Omaha, NE.

Parsons Brinckerhoff argues local political connections weren’t among criteria included in an Aug. 2 Transportation Department request for proposals to oversee “Connecting Idaho,” the ambitious highway building plan that Gov. Dirk Kempthorne fought for earlier this year to boost the economy, create construction jobs and link disparate parts of the state.

“They awarded the contract based on these additional considerations contrary to Idaho law,” Parsons Brinckerhoff said in its lawsuit, filed Nov. 25.

The company seeks to nullify the contract.

Kempthorne’s plan includes 13 major projects on 250 mi. of highway, including a new thoroughfare north of Emmett through the Indian Valley and a new bridge across the Snake River at Twin Falls.

The state aims to sell bonds to finance construction, then repay debt with federal highway money it expects to receive in coming years.

Last month, federal highway officials asked Idaho to delay the management contract because of concern that award guidelines weren’t followed by the transportation board.

The seven-member board, which oversees the Transportation Department, has now has put the matter on hold and had planned to discuss the dispute at its Dec. 14 meeting.

“The federal government is making public money available, and it’s our expectation that the money goes to the company that’s best qualified to carry out the work,” Federal Highway Division Administrator Stephen Moreno said in an interview with The Associated Press. “That’s exactly what we’re looking into.”

State transportation officials, including department Director David Ekern and Chuck Winder, the board chairman, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Department officials said they hadn’t seen Parsons Brinckerhoff’s lawsuit and declined to comment on it. Still, the state agency has already hired outside legal counsel to represent it in the contract dispute, said Spokesman Jeff Stratten.

On Oct. 27, nine members of a state Transportation Department evaluation committee unanimously recommended to transportation board members that Parsons Brinckerhoff be given the contract, which a draft Transportation Department budget shows is worth $5 million annually through 2008.

That committee, whose members include senior Transportation Department staff, based its recommendation on a “technical proposal” and an interview with executives from the prospective contract managers.

Despite the recommendation, transportation board members voted 4-1 to give the contract to Washington Group and CH2M Hill.

Board member Monte C. McClure, from Meridian, said other factors should be considered in the selection process, according to minutes from the October meeting. The minutes indicated that because the Washington Group International/CH2M Hill team was well known in Idaho and had been contributing to the state’s economy for many years, McClure and other board members voted in favor of giving the project to the consortium with local ties.

Parsons Brinckerhoff is now working for the state Transportation Department on a State Highway 75 project near Sun Valley.

The company’s Northwest district manager, Clinton Topham, said the company is awaiting the outcome of the Dec. 14 meeting before it decides how to proceed with its lawsuit.

“I don’t want to jeopardize our being able to reach some kind of agreement,” Topham told The Associated Press. “It’s [the lawsuit] a protest that we made. They [the state Transportation Department] are our client, and I want to keep them as our client.”