City Council approved a number of bids at its Aug. 17 meeting, including a bid for emergency repairs to the bridge over the sanitary canal on Central Street near the hospital and fire station. The approved contract highlighted what seems to have become a trend in recent contracts – significant disparities between engineers’ estimates and bids received, as well as wide disparities among the bids themselves.

In April, the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) informed the City that the Central Street bridge needed emergency repairs because of “severe deterioration of the … columns’ concrete just above the construction joint.” The City was required to post a 15-ton weight limit immediately, because “an unknown amount of the core concrete is no longer present,” per the staff memo.

The City immediately engaged an engineer to study the project, and issued a request for bids. As with every such project the City bids out, the engineer provided an estimate as to an expected cost of the emergency bridge repair. In this case, the engineer estimated just over $75,000.

Two responsive bids crossed the City’s desk, each more than doubling the City’s expected cost: one for about $163,000, and the second for about $175,000.

At the Administration and Public Works Committee, Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, pointed out the “wildly different” estimate from the engineer and the responsive bids: While the engineer set a target of $3,750, one bid came in at $127,000, the other at $10,500. Further, the bid for cofferdams (watertight structural components) should have come in at around $36,000 according to the engineer, but one bidder set $10,000 and the other $63,200.

“I could not make heads or tails” of these bids said City CFO Marty Lyons. “But for the emergency nature [of the project], I would have rejected them all. … I learned a lot about bridge repair in the past month.” Council approved the low bidder, the one estimating but $25 for structural steel – 1 cent per ton. Mr. Lyons said he would hold the bidder to that steel price in writing.

IDOT had to inform the City of the emergency on the Central Street Bridge; Ald. Miller asked if the City inspected bridges in general. In reply, Mr. Lyons said the City had about $12 million in bridge repairs coming.

A report on the City’s Capital Improvement program to date added to Council’s concern over the bidding process. Mr. Lyons reported that the City sent out a request for bids on the Dodge Avenue bike lane project and received not a single responsive bid.

“Did we put this out,” asked Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, “and nobody bid on it?”

“That’s right,” said. Mr. Lyons. “Building has picked up” across the region, he said. Construction on interstate 294, cited in prior meetings as an inflater of bids on road projects, is just one example of the increase. In addition to receiving no bids on the Dodge Avenue project, the City received much higher than expected bids on a number of capital projects in 2015. As a result of these high bids, the City has decided not to pursue several of the projects slated for this year and will simply wait until next year to rebid them, he added.

“We won’t be the only city that thinks of that,” said Mr. Lyons. “But we’re still going to give it a shot.”