Emergency Contracting: Handling the Predictably Unpredictable
Earthquakes. Landslides. Sinkholes. Massive debris flows. Transportation meltdowns are inevitable. Emergency contracting means District 7 is always ready.
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There’s no getting around it. No matter how much we plan, no matter how much we try to anticipate, unpredictable things ARE going to happen on our freeways and highways – things like flooding, sinkholes, massive debris flows, and earthquakes. We don’t know where, and we don’t know when, but we do know that we have to be ready to handle them.
Case in point: the landslide that occurred on February 18 in San Dimas, which was followed by a second smaller landslide at the same location on April 25. The first slide closed the westbound San Bernardino Freeway (I-10) connector to the northbound Orange Freeway (SR-57) and the northbound SR-71 connector to northbound SR-57. The second slide closed the I-10 to SR-57 connector.
The landslides were an emergency, which in the language of deputy directives is a “threat or failure of any bridge or highway facility.” When a threat or failure occurs, Caltrans can make exceptions to the normal contract bidding process, which can take months, and authorize contracts for emergency work through a director’s order. The District’s two major damage restoration coordinators, Bill Varley and Mesfin Hailu, facilitate that process.
“If something happens that’s beyond the resources of Maintenance and has to be fixed immediately, we have to utilize the emergency contracting process to get the necessary resources in place,” said Varley. “Our job is to coordinate that process, to implement it and make sure it’s administered correctly.”
Time Is of the Essence
“Caltrans’ goal is to make the freeway safe for motorists and open it as soon as possible,” said Hailu. “Caltrans identifies a contractor who has done similar work, who has the necessary equipment, who can respond quickly, and who has a solid track record with Caltrans. This is not the time to experiment.”
The district director can authorize emergency contracts up to $250,000. Amounts above that must be approved by Headquarters. Construction and Maintenance determine the scope of the work needed, striving for an accurate estimate of the cost of the project so as to minimize requests for supplemental funds. The California Transportation Commission closely monitors all emergency contracts.
Caltrans identifies potential emergency contractors using the Emergency Contractor Registry (ECR), which is a database of certified firms that have registered to be considered for emergency work. In some cases, a handful of contractors may be invited to bid on the job with the project going to the lowest bidder (known as an “emergency limited bid,” or ELB). Currently, there are more than 800 contractors in the ECR.
“That sounds like a lot,” said Hailu, “but when you narrow it down by location, expertise, availability and experience, it comes down to a very limited number.”
Once the contractor is hired, work can begin immediately. Construction administers the contract, though Varley and Hailu are sometimes asked to provide assistance. “If there are additional issues – whether it’s with administrative paperwork, funding issues, or anything else – we might be called in,” said Varley.
Emergencies occur every day in District 7. Thankfully, most of them are small enough that Maintenance crews can handle them – a clogged drain or a guardrail damaged in a vehicular accident, for example. Major emergencies – those requiring an emergency contract – are much less frequent. Though the number varies, Varley estimates that in a typical year, District 7 handles 10 to 15 major emergencies.
“Seasonal storm damage is the most frequent type of emergency that we have on a regular basis,” he said. “Excess water damages the roadway. Sometimes it washes out sections of the road bed support and destabilizes sections of the pavement that traffic travels over. The water can saturate adjacent hillsides and make them slide.”
Perhaps the most memorable emergency was the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. District 7 had collapsed bridges, damaged bridges, destroyed pavement, blocked freeways, and broken water systems. The District received more than 200 director’s orders for emergency work. “Pretty much every kind of emergency we deal with, we dealt with on the Northridge Earthquake,” said Varley.
As was true during the Northridge Earthquake, District 7’s major damage restoration coordinators are on call 24/7, ready to help facilitate Caltrans’ emergency response whenever hillsides slide, roads wash out, sinkholes blossom, semis hit bridges, or any number of unexpected transportation disruptions occurs. It’s never a question of if an emergency will occur, but when.
“That’s what I like about it,” said Hailu. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. You can’t get bored, because every day is different. You never know what to expect.”