Lone bidder for I-95 Scudder toll bridge approved; will borrow $475M

013017_scudderfalls_1200
The replacement bridge would be six lanes-plus with stronger concrete supports, as in this rendering.

The $396 million bid by Trumbull Corp. of Pittsburgh, the only general contractor willing to replace the free I-95 Scudder Falls bridge with a twin toll bridge under conditions set by the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, was accepted by the commission at its meeting in New Hope today.

The commission had hoped to build the bridge for $300 million to $325 million. Two nonunion general contractors told the Inquirer the felt they were discouraged from bidding because the commission is requiring a Project Labor Agreement binding builders to work with unions in case of work disputes.

Despite the higher cost, the Commission will be able to build the bridge without raising tolls it had previously agreed to implement on the bridge in 2019, executive director Joe Resta said after the meeting.

 The work --to be financed by $475 million in bonds, plus cash reserves-- was approved as New Jersey and Pennsylvania turnpike officials are trying to speed a plan to reopen the nearby Delaware River bridge connecting the turnpikes, which carried around 40,000 vehicles a day before it was closed after painters found a beam had split.

The Scudder Falls bridge on I-95 carried around 60,000 before the turnpike shutdown. It and other bridges have backed up during rush hours since the turnpike bridge shut. 

The bond issue is the commission's largest, as is the bridge it's paying for. The commission, currently rated single A, plans to repay the money over 30 years, paying extra interest because its credit rating, like Pennsylvania's and New Jersey's, is several notches below the top triple-A rating.

 The commission manages 20 toll and free bridges along the river from the Trenton area north to New York State.

When the first of two replacement spans opens in 2019, the commission will for the first time impose tolls on bridge drivers.

The no-tollbooth system would initially clip car drivers either $1.25 (via E-ZPass) or $2.60 (by taking pictures of drivers' tags and billing them by mail). Regular commuters would get a discount.

Truck tolls would range from around $7 to $33. As on Delaware River Port Authority bridges between Philadelphia and Chester and South Jersey, only southbound drivers into Pennsylvania would pay tolls. Going to New Jersey will be free. "We don't see any need to increase these tolls" until at least the mid-2020s, Resta said.

The plan calls for adding a new span north of the current four-lane bridge, then knocking down the old much-patched concrete and steel bridge, which dates to 1959, and finally building a second span on the site of the original bridge. When finished, the road will carry six lanes, three each way.

The contractor will also supervise new, larger exits with gentler curves in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, replacing in all more than four miles of roadway.

Some non-union contractors have complained the commission made the Scudder Falls deal less attractive to them because it requires contractors and unions participate in a Project Labor Agreement.

George Harms Construction of Howell, N.J., has sued the commission in state court to challenge the bidding.  Harms, through his lawyer, Frank Cook at Fox Rothschild LP, says the firm has been wrongfully blocked from bidding on the job because his labor contract is with the United Steelworkers, not the Building Trades council specified by the bridge commission. (Revised)

Resta said work will proceed alongside the lawsuit.

PLA advocates say that the arrangement speeds dispute resolution and problem-solving to ensure the job gets done on schedule. 

The bridge deal includes goals for "disadvantaged" subcontractors -- woman- and minority-owned businesses, and veterans -- and protections for sturgeon, bats and other river- and riverside-dwelling creatures, adding to the cost.