The state has taken a major step forward in the development of a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, awarding a consulting contract that could ultimately be worth $5 million to a team headed by Atlas Technical Consultants, an Austin, Texas-based firm owned by Bernhard Capital Partners, the Baton Rouge private equity firm created and owned by Jim Bernhard.
Under the terms of the deal—a two-phase contract, each worth $2.5 million—Atlas and its team of 10 sub-consultants will help finalize a location for the new span and begin doing the environmental assessment work needed to secure permits.
But the selection process has raised a few eyebrows and is being challenged by one of the two teams that lost out to Atlas—both of which scored higher than Atlas in the final round of the selection process by the state’s technical selection committee, which evaluated the proposals.
Atlas received 61.98 points from the committee—more than 10 points behind the No. 2 team, Michael Baker International, which had 72.59 points, and some 12 points behind first-place finisher AECOM, which had 74.01 points.
A Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development spokesman confirms one of the top two firms has appealed the Atlas selection, but would not immediately say which one before today’s publication deadline.
But he defends the state’s decision, which ultimately was made by Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson, who has legal authority to override the recommendation of the selection committee.
In a January 10 letter outlining his decision, Wilson says while AECOM and Michael Baker International and their sub-consultants both are “respectable and have done satisfactory work for the department … Atlas demonstrates the least amount of backlog on work with the department that will yield a greater amount of attention to this specific project.”
He says “also worth noting, is that the consultant selected must work well with all the parish leaders and the members of the Capital Area Road and Bridge District, …” the legal entity that will oversee financing of the project.
Jim Bernhard has been a vocal advocate of a new bridge and has publicly suggested his firm, BCP, would help finance construction of a new span.
DOTD denies there was any sort of quid pro quo in overriding the selection committee’s recommendation and awarding the contract to a Bernhard-owned company.
BCP officials today referred comment to Atlas CEO Joe Boyer, who says there is nothing unusual about winning a contract despite not having the highest score in a technical evaluation.
“It’s not the first time I’ve won a contract and didn’t have the highest technical scores,” Boyer says.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the CARB-D, Jay Campbell, says he doesn’t have an opinion on which team was selected. He says Wilson called each member of the committee individually to discuss the top three finishers, but he defers to DOTD’s judgment in the ultimate selection and says he’s just glad the project is moving forward.
“I would say that is up to DOTD to justify,” Campbell says. “For me to engage in any opinion of that is irrelevant at that point. It would be much more to my liking to ensure that they do what they say they are going to do.”
Because there is a challenge to the procurement, a contract cannot be executed until the appeal has been resolved.
The $5 million contract is being funded by the state DOTD. No funds have been identified yet to actually construct the new bridge, which is estimated to cost $1.2 billion but state officials say the selection of a location and an environmental assessment have to begin if the project is ever to get off the ground.
(Editor’s Note: This story has been revised from an earlier version to correct the number of points AECOM received in the scoring process. Daily Report regrets the error.)