By Dan Moffett
Faced with a staggering cost increase and continued delays, Gulf Stream commissioners are scrambling to get their much-troubled and long-awaited underground utilities project back on track.
Danny Brannon, Gulf Stream’s engineering consultant, had nothing but bad news to deliver at the March town meeting. He said the bids have come in for phase two of the project and they’re about 33 percent, or roughly $954,000, higher than expected.
Work that was supposed to cost about $2.8 million now will approach $4 million, raising the total cost of moving all the town’s power, telephone and cable lines underground to about $6.5 million.
“Absolutely stunning,” said Vice Mayor Robert Ganger.
But forget about phase two for a moment, because there still is no telling when phase one will be completed. Brannon said he has had trouble getting Comcast to take down its lines so Florida Power & Light can come in and remove its poles.
Neighborhoods that were supposed to be fully transferred to the underground system by now still resemble construction sites.
Mayor Scott Morgan said the town’s south end “looks like a Benghazi suburb” and lamented the continued inability of the utility companies to work together.
Brannon said it’s been impossible to get FPL, AT&T and Comcast to commit to a timeline.
Even the project’s accounting has come into question. Commissioners told Brannon they couldn’t make sense of the numbers he brought them.
Ganger called the bad bookkeeping “a rookie mistake” that had to be cleaned up before the commission can decide how to proceed. “You’re asking us to make a decision when someone can’t even do the math,” Ganger said.
Morgan proposed consulting with town residents who have experience in finance and construction to draw on their expertise for ideas about righting the foundering project. He said he would bring recommendations for discussion at the town’s April 8 meeting.
Commissioner Joan Orthwein said there is no choice but to move forward, because the town is too far into the project to turn back. “That would be like stopping building a house halfway through,” she said. “What have you got? Nothing.”
The commission decided to conditionally award the contract for phase two to low-bidder Wilco Electric, with the hope that the contractor can find ways to take some of the cost out of the project.
Gulf Stream’s problems with the project should send an ominous signal to surrounding communities. On March 15, voters in the town of Palm Beach approved a plan to move utilities underground that is roughly 15 times the size and cost ($80 million) of Gulf Stream’s.
Palm Beach may want to take a second look at the Gulf Stream timeline. The idea for burying utility lines was born in the aftermath of the three hurricanes that struck Palm Beach County in 2004 and 2005.
Gulf Stream started setting aside prepaid assets for the project in 2010. Construction was to have started in May 2012 but didn’t get going until late in 2013. The original completion target for both phases of the project was somewhere in the first half of 2015.
Cyclical economic factors have contributed to the delays and overruns. Coming out of the recession, contractors were looking for work and gave low bids. Material prices also were low. Utility companies downsized their staffs, pushing into early retirement experienced workers who knew how to handle complicated projects.
Now with the national economy rolling again, the cost of most everything has gone up and companies are understaffed.
Despite the rising price tag, Town Manager William Thrasher told commissioners there is money in the town’s budget to pay for the project if they decide to proceed.
By Dan Moffett