While the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development reviews an appeal filed by one of the firms that lost out on its bid for a consulting contract to work on the new Mississippi River Bridge—despite receiving a higher technical score than the winning team—U.S. Rep. Garret Graves and Gov. John Bel Edwards are closely watching the process.
DOTD announced Jan. 10 that a team led by Atlas Technical Consultants, which is owned by Baton Rouge-based private equity firm Bernhard Capital Partners, was selected by Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson to receive the $5 million contract over the recommendation of the state selection committee, which rated a team led by AECOM 12 points higher than Atlas.
AECOM has filed an appeal, according to sources familiar with the situation, though DOTD has yet to respond to a public records request filed Jan. 15 for the appeal documents, and AECOM declines to comment.
Graves, who has been instrumental in getting transportation infrastructure funding for Louisiana during his years in Congress, says he’s not prepared to question Wilson’s decision. But he says it’s critical that the state handles the procurement properly because the feds are watching.
“Anytime you circumvent the decisions of your technical assessment you’ve got to have good reason for doing so and it’s possible that was the case here,” Graves says. “I don’t know the details but the state better have good reason for doing it because otherwise, I think it does cast a shadow in terms of the state’s intent on this project. I think it casts a shadow on ethics and … if we’re going to go out there and be advocating the federal government for hundreds of millions or over a billion dollars, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right thing with the money.”
Wilson said in a letter explaining his decision that Atlas had a strong team and had less backlog with the state than the other teams, meaning it could devote more time to the project.
Atlas Technical Consultant was created two years ago by Bernhard Capital, which is owned by Baton Rouge businessman Jim Bernhard, a political supporter of the administration and a public advocate of building the new bridge.
Bernhard campaigned for a road tax in Baton Rouge in 2018 that, among other things, will help pay for connector roads leading to the new bridge. He has also suggested BCP could help finance the project.
For his part, Edwards says he doesn’t have any concerns about the process at this point or any political influence.
“I don’t have any issues with it right now and I wouldn’t know about any political favoritism,” he says. “An appeal is part of the process and it will get decided and I’m not going to offer any statements to you that might impact that particular decision.”