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RFTA’s bid process is questioned

Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris has sharp words about how the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority went about selecting a contractor to build the next section of the Rio Grande Trail.Farris, a RFTA board member, has made no bones about her belief that last month’s bidding process was not fair and that it needs to be done over.She has been pushing to have the 1.1-mile extension of the trail from Emma to Hook Spur Lane opened up for new bids even though the winning firm – Aspen Earthmoving LLC – was selected just last week. And because no contract has actually been signed, she has a good chance of getting her way. Off the record, trail advocates and RFTA officials express concern that the commissioner appears to be raising a stink on behalf of a single contractor, M&M Construction in Glenwood Springs. On the record, they say her intervention has been highly unusual.The situation has made everyone at RFTA nervous. At a public meeting on July 16, Farris and other RFTA board members spoke cryptically about the bids using indirect references that revealed no names or information while officially discussing a different topic altogether.Farris has a number of problems with the bid process, but she’s particularly troubled by the fact that M&M lost out even though its offer was considerably lower than Aspen Earthmoving’s. Low bidder M&M was one of three firms to lose out to Carbondale-based Aspen Earthmoving in the competition to build the $250,000 project.RFTA executives on the agency’s bid selection committee said price was only one factor in their considerations, and not the most important one. Others included a prospective contractor’s experience and the plan for completing the project.Experience weighed heavily, said Mike Hermes, RFTA director of trails and properties, because contractors are using a process called design-build to construct the trail from a conceptual plan that lacks detailed engineering.”When you’re doing design-build, experience is a crucial aspect because you’re making your decisions about what to do in the field and on the fly,” Hermes said.While M&M’s bid was lower, Hermes and Heather Copp, RFTA’s finance director, say the selection committee thought Aspen Earthmoving would be less expensive in the end because it would make fewer mistakes and thus prevent the cost run-ups that often occur when unanticipated challenges arise.But both Farris and M&M owner Keysha Bailey say weighting the selection process in favor of experience makes Aspen Earthmoving, which built most of the Rio Grande Trail in Pitkin County, a slam-dunk selection for building the rest of the trail from Emma to Glenwood Springs. In separate interviews, they both suggested that RFTA not waste everybody’s time with bids, and simply negotiate a deal directly with Aspen Earthmoving.”If that’s what we’re doing, then we shouldn’t play this game that we’re going out to bid,” Farris said. “But if we’re going to be open to everyone in the valley, let’s open it up.”What’s got everyone scratching their heads, however, is the fact that Farris is willing to derail trail development and potentially force expensive, and many say unnecessary, engineering work simply because she thinks one contractor, M&M, got a raw deal.Unexpected appearanceTrail advocates were probably expecting the bid process for the Emma to Hook Spur Lane section to be a source of celebration rather than scrutiny. Earlier this summer, Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails program completed the trail in its portion of the 33-mile section of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad right of way that RFTA owns. Emma to Hook Spur Lane is the first extension outside Pitkin County of the continuous trail that begins in Aspen.Much of the money needed to build the trail has been secured by volunteers on the Midvalley Trails Committee, including a $122,000 grant from the state. RFTA published a request for proposals last May that envisioned the trail being completed by the end of summer. The RFTA selection committee included RFTA’s Hermes and Copp, Pitkin County’s Temple Glassier and Midvalley Trail Committee member Donna Grauer. Copp, former director of finance for the Colorado Department of Transportation, has overseen massive design-build projects, including T-Rex in Denver, and Glazier oversaw development of much of the trail building in the upper valley.After the bidding period closed, the selection committee reviewed applications against a list of criteria and then invited the two finalists back for an interview. It was at the interview meeting that Farris began to intervene.An e-mail announcing the interviews, which were behind schedule, was sent out last month to all of the RFTA board members, according to RFTA board chairwoman Jacque Whitsitt.Farris decided to attend. She said her decision to go to the interview was based on her experience with two previous bid selections, one involving RFTA and one involving the Scenic Byway program, that had also resulted in the low bidder losing out.”This is the third project where I was aware that the low bidder didn’t win the contract, but was instead asked back to an interview,” Farris said.She added that she sat in simply to observe the process and did not ask questions, except perhaps to clarify or offer opinions.But selection committee members recall her asking questions. When asked if Farris offered up her opinion from the interviews of which finalist should be selected, the selection committee members declined to answer, deferring the question to Chairwoman Whitsitt or RFTA Executive Director Dan Blankenship.Whitsitt said she couldn’t say if Farris had proffered an opinion to the selection committee because M&M may appeal.Pitkin County uses a selection committee similar to the one that RFTA uses, according to Pitkin County Manager Hilary Smith, and county commissioners are not allowed to attend. “They are the appeal board, so they don’t sit in on the selection committee,” Smith said.After the committee chose Aspen Earthmoving, Farris called the fairness into question and convinced Whitsitt and the RFTA board to take a second look at the process. A review panel that included Farris, Whitsitt, Hermes, Copp and RFTA attorney Renee Black found no cause for reopening the bid process.”We sat down and went through the bid process every step of the way,” Whitsitt said at the July 16 RFTA meeting. “My feeling was that every `i’ was dotted and every `t’ was crossed.”M&M owner Bailey said, however, she was never told how the criteria – price, experience, preliminary plans – were being weighed by the selection committee. The published request for proposals from RFTA is silent on how the criteria were being weighed.”My company has licensed civil and environmental engineers that they might want to take advantage of at no extra cost,” Bailey said.That the matter was still being talked about by Farris at the July 16 meeting indicates she doesn’t share Whitsitt’s opinion. Farris suggested that an engineer be hired to design the trail and then rebid it, a process that Copp said could add 20 to 30 percent to the project cost.[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]


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