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Lessons from a Bid Protest in New Orleans

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Bid protests remind us of video reviews by the referees at a football game: The review slows down the action to provide a clearer picture of what occurred, even if the interpretation isn't always as definitive as hoped. So, when a review committee scoring the construction manager-at-risk competition for a new terminal at New Orleans airport flubbed its first try, the losing team protested and later prevailed.

The full New Orleans Aviation Board now must make a final decision, hopefully with some important takeaways and lessons.

Two joint-venture teams, Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro and Parsons Odebrecht, are competing for the planned $546-million terminal (ENR 5/5 p. 8). In the first scoring of the proposals in May, the teams tied at 999 points out of a possible 1,100. Each of the 11 committee members was allowed to award up to 100 points, only 10 of which were based on cost.

Inexplicably, two members of the review committee—one an experienced construction supervisor and the other an architect—gave both contenders the full 10 points. However, the Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro team contends its plan offered $14 million more in construction benefits.

Needed Corrections

What accounts for differences in scoring? Human error, subjectivity or an unspoken agenda are possibilities. That's why bid protests, despite the costs and delays they can impose, can help correct flawed selections and ensure everyone, including taxpayers, a smooth, fair process. And it's vital that the selection process keeps within reasonable bounds. Comment from the public during the selection process, while welcome, could sidetrack the committee into matters too complex and controversial to be verified in time.

That's what happened at an open hearing of the New Orleans Aviation Board, when a former subcontractor accused Woodward Design + Build, a New Orleans-area contractor on the Parsons Odebrecht team, of allowing its employees to make racist comments and send racist emails on a project four years ago. The contractor denied the charges. For undisclosed reasons, its name was not on the team when the relaunched competition started.

We don't know whether political correctness seeped into the process, despite some fairly incriminating emails that found their way into the public hearing. But we do know that contract selection committees need to follow a formal process free of explosive charges of harassment that may influence voting.

For the airport terminal project, the time has come to pick a winner and finish the work for New Orleans' tricentennial in 2018, as Mayor Mitch Landreiu (D) has asked. The aviation board and the city can use the lessons of this experience to assure future selections are made fairly.

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