Did FDOT skew selection of contractor for I-395 reconstruction and signature bridge?

Florida transportation officials postponed a Monday meeting to award a bid for the reconstruction of Interstate 395, including a long-awaited new “signature bridge” over Biscayne Boulevard, amid mounting questions over whether the state agency gamed or fumbled the selection process.

The Florida Department of Transportation gave no reason Monday for the postponement. But it came after former Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, acting with the backing of at least two sitting commissioners, sent FDOT a letter alleging that the agency stacked a review committee, effectively overriding the vote of community representatives charged with evaluating competing proposals on aesthetic grounds.

No new date has been given for the meeting.

As a result of the jerry-rigged evaluation process, Sarnoff claims, a joint-venture team led by contractors Archer Western of Atlanta and The de Moya Group of Miami vaulted over a competing group to win the top score by just half a point in spite of receiving mediocre-to-poor ratings from the community representatives. The community voters included Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmondson, whose district includes the area, and John Richard, director of the adjacent Arsht Center.

Sarnoff’s letter was followed by a second missive to FDOT, this one by Dan Stoppenhagen, an attorney for the second-ranked team, Fluor-Astaldi-MCM, outlining parallel claims.

An FDOT spokeswoman did not respond to emails and phone messages requesting comment. After releasing the scores last week, the agency said it’s under a “cone of silence” and unable to comment on the competitive process or release bidders’ proposals until after the bid is awarded.

Sarnoff’s letter carries weight. In 2013, while a sitting commissioner, he sued FDOT, with Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado as co-plaintiff, when the agency’s district chief tried to back off the signature bridge concept, a key feature of the reconstruction project that would replace a low expressway overpass that critics say is a blight on the neighborhood. Sarnoff said he remains a party to the case as co-signer of a court-approved settlement.

Under the settlement, FDOT agreed to go forward with an architecturally distinguished bridge and to weigh aesthetics heavily in selecting a proposal by a contractor. Aesthetics featured prominently in years’ worth of public meetings on the 395 reconstruction. By reconnecting blocked streets and opening up acres of land for public use, the new, higher design for the bridge and roadway is meant in part to reverse some of the damage done to Overtown by construction of the expressway through the neighborhood in the 1960s.

In scoring proposals on their aesthetics, Stoppenhagen wrote, FDOT also agreed to give equal weight to the vote of two groups — an aesthetic review committee, to be made up of Richard, Edmondson, two city officials and one FDOT engineer, and a technical committee consisting entirely of five FDOT engineers.

But that’s not what happened, Sarnoff and Stoppenhagen said. Instead, they claim, FDOT skewed the scoring so that the vote of its engineers counted more heavily. The four community representatives overwhelmingly favored the Fluor design for the bridge and the elevated roadway span that traverses Overtown and the Omni district, with Richard going so far as to give the competing Archer Western design a “poor” rating, according to Stoppenhagen.

Had that skewing not occured, Sarnoff and Stoppenhagen contend, Flour would have won the overall competition for the contract by several points.

“We think this violates the spirit and the letter of the settlement,” Sarnoff said in an interview. “The whole point was to give the community a voice. There was a process to follow. The process was not followed. If you take away our input, our voices are silenced.”

Regalado said he has not seen the letters and declined to comment.

Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez said he shares Sarnoff’s concerns, even though he has advocated for a different option — tearing down the expressway and burying it below street level.

“If that’s in fact true, I’m concerned,” Suarez said of Sarnoff’s claim. “As elected officials, we have an obligation to make sure our public agencies are on the up and up.”

Like Sarnoff, Suarez stressed he has not seen the competing bridge designs, which remain under wraps because of the state “cone of silence” rules, designed to protect the integrity of the bidding process. But he said the apparently large gap between the aesthetic scores of the top two proposals worries him.

“The community has been promised a signature bridge,” he said. “I certainly don’t think we should get anything less than a magnificent project.”

The project, scheduled to begin later this year, includes a total reconstruction of the functionally obsolete I-395 span from Interstate 95 to the MacArthur Causeway, a 1.4-mile stretch. It also encompasses a rebuilding of State Road 836 between I-95 and Northwest 17th Avenue and a redo of the 836 and I-95 interchange.