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Contractor behind huge traffic jam is one of 3 Tappan Zee bidders

Traffic flows on the Tappan Zee Bridge from

Traffic flows on the Tappan Zee Bridge from Rockland to Westchester County, in the background, over the Hudson River. (March 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

A contractor whose work on the Tappan Zee Bridge snarled the Tuesday morning commute when it went 1 1/2 hours past its deadline is among those vying for the $5.9 billion contract to build the bridge's replacement.

California-based Tutor Perini faces a $235,000 fine for allowing its deck replacement work to tie up traffic until about 8:30 a.m. in both directions of the Westchester-Rockland span. The work crew was scheduled to be finished by 6 a.m. so traffic could start rolling, but the morning rush was backed up for miles, angering commuters.

State Sen. David Carlucci (D-Rockland/Orange) came to the defense of the thousands of motorists who stream across the bridge each day, calling for fines of up to $10,000 for every minute a contractor works past the morning deadline.

"It is an outrage that construction contractors on the Tappan Zee Bridge continue to break morning work deadlines that cause massive travel delays," Carlucci said. "When commuters are stuck in traffic, it hurts our economy, impacts our quality of life and damages our environment."

A spokesman for the company said Tutor Perini was in the process of installing deck panels early Tuesday when contractors ran into several delays, including the need for a component that had not been specified in the original contract drawings, as well as unanticipated size adjustments. Because the process couldn't be stopped until the panel phase was completed, workers had no choice but to delay traffic, said spokesman Jorge Casado.

The company informed the state of the problem Tuesday, and its contract allowed for the flexibility, Casado said. If the state pushes forward with the fines, the company intends to appeal.

"These are things that are beyond our control," Casado said.

He was unable to say when the company would finish the deck replacement project but said Tuesday's work would mark the last time lanes would need to be closed down, as the remaining phase of the job involves work underneath the bridge.

The glaring mistake threatens to cost the company even more because it comes at a delicate time in the selection of a contractor to build a replacement for the decaying 57-year-old Tappan Zee.

Tutor Perini has teamed up with Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., the world's largest engineering and construction company, to form Tappan Zee Bridge Partners -- one of three consortiums on the short list to build a new span. A bidder is expected to be chosen before the end of the month.

At stake are millions the consortiums already have shelled out to create a design that will attract the attention of the New York State Thruway Authority board, which will select a winner after a panel handpicked by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration makes its recommendations.

State officials said the mix-up will not affect who gets to build the new bridge.

"It doesn't play into it at all," said Thomas Madison, executive director of the Thruway Authority.

Madison said the delay was caused by "major complications" the company encountered Monday night while trying to put one of the last sections of concrete deck into place.

"Obviously, it's not good for our public and it's not good for the contractor," Madison said.

Aside from Monday night's trouble, Madison said Tutor Perini has done "a good job," particularly because it has been forced to do most of the work in the middle of the night to limit the impact on drivers.

Nonetheless, he said, the contractor will have to abide by the terms of a 2010 contract, which calls for fines of $1,000 for every minute that every lane is shut down. The money will be deducted from the state's next payment.

On Tuesday, work crews had shut down the left and center lanes of Interstate 287 south from Exit 11 in Nyack to before Exit 10 in South Nyack. And two northbound lanes were closed on Interstate 87 from exit 8/8A to before Exit 10, backing up traffic for miles to the Garden State Parkway.

The work involves the replacement of 420,000 square feet of deteriorated steel and concrete on the 2.5-mile span. It began in June 2010 and was supposed to be finished in November, according to a news release the company issued when it won the Thruway contract.

The $149 million construction project is about 80 percent complete, Madison said. He did not have a timetable for when the project will wrap up.

Tutor is led by Ron Tutor, an outspoken figure in the contracting world who in 2010 led a group of investors that purchased the Miramax motion picture unit from the Walt Disney Co. He has had to live down a reputation for bidding low and then socking state and local governments with additional costs -- known as change orders -- that hike the price of a project after work is well under way.

In 1992, former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley dubbed Tutor a "change-order artist" for jacking up the costs of construction on a subway tunnel.

Tutor has defended his company's position on seeking change orders and pursuing litigation when the company doesn't get paid.

"Maybe we're a little hard line that we get paid, when owners make changes, and we're not as flexible and giving as others," Tutor told analysts in May. "But all we ever do is if you change you are going to pay -- whether you pay the hard way or the easy way, you are going to pay."

The company also has a reputation among government officials and contractors for getting major projects done.

It has worked on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in San Francisco and portions of the Hudson Yards project in New York City. It also built underground lanes for Boston's Big Dig tunnel project.

On Tuesday, the company announced that it had been awarded a $235 million contract by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to replace the upper-level deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island. Work is scheduled to begin in 2013 and last through 2017.

During an October interview with Newsday, Jack Frost, executive vice president of Tutor Perini, defended his company's record.

"I can tell you this," Frost said. "We've never not finished a project."


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