By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The low bid for the latest Highway 101 widening project is more than a third less than engineers’ estimates, a recession-era trend that will save Sonoma County $56 million in anticipated costs for work from Windsor to Petaluma.
“You have a lot of contractors who are trying to get the limited amount of work there is out there, and they are sharpening their pencils to a degree that we have not seen before,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.
The bidding environment is being closely watched by the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District, which is about to seek bids on $314 million of work for an commute line from Santa Rosa to San Rafael.
“I assume the bidding will be very competitive, and it would not surprise me a bit if it came in under,” said county Supervisor Valerie Brown, chairwoman of the SMART board.
The bids for freeway work were opened April 19. Ghilotti Construction of Santa Rosa was the low bidder at $10.6 million to widen Highway 101 from Pepper Road to Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma, about 36 percent less than the engineer’s estimate of $17 million.
Ghilotti also was the low bidder on work now underway to widen the freeway from Rohnert Park Expressway to Pepper Road. The $48.8 million bid was about 37 percent less than that $77.6 million estimate.
Two previous projects to widen the freeway from Santa Rosa to Windsor and from Santa Rosa to the Rohnert Park Expressway also were under budget. The work was estimated to cost $139.7 million but came in at $105.7 million.
Tom Smith, chief estimator for Ghilotti Construction, said contractors are offering discounted pricing because of the tough market.
“Every contractor has to make their own decision on what they need to stay in business, how much money a job is worth to them,” Smith said. “It is a very fine line.”
The lower highway construction bids allow Sonoma County to stretch what it can accomplish with its transportation sales tax and state funding the tax leverages.
The county is now able to go out to bid on freeway interchanges at Airport Boulevard in Santa Rosa and at Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma, each estimated at $41 million.
Sonoma County also is fast-tracking its effort to rebuild three of the four Highway 101 bridges over the Petaluma River, a $90 million project.
The bridges are part of the Sonoma-Marin Narrows widening that is still $300 million short and years from completion.
The rail agency hopes for savings when seeks bids within the next few weeks, but given the specialized nature of rail work, the question is how much.
The project includes reconstruction of 37 miles of track from Railroad Square in Santa Rosa to downtown San Rafael and building seven stations, a maintenance facility and a pedestrian-bike path. The work is budgeted for $314 million.
Nine contractors, with groups of consultants and subcontractors, have been pre-qualified for the work.
“It really is a crapshoot,” said consultant Dave Anderson of American Rail, who has overseen rail work on the line for the North Coast Railroad Authority and is also involved in companies that may be bidding on the SMART work.
“I know a couple of the design-build teams are very hungry, which is good,” he said. “It may help SMART, but this is specialized work.”