By Dan Moffett

    Manalapan town commissioners are blaming their engineering consultant for grossly underestimating the cost of replacing the Audubon Causeway bridge, and now they’re looking to replace the consultant, too.
    Mayor Pro Tem Peter Isaac said that Mock, Roos & Associates of West Palm Beach assured him in September that the project would come in around $850,000, and that there were “no surprises that might lead to a major difference in pricing.”
    By February, however, the consultants had revised their estimate to $1.3 million, telling commissioners that rising prices for steel and concrete were responsible for most of the increase.
    Isaac disagrees, saying that material and labor costs rose by “no more than 5 percent” over the last year. He said the real reason for the project’s soaring cost was an error by the bridge designers who failed to take into account that new Florida Department of Transportation standards require building the new bridge wider than the current bridge.
    “It has to be some kind of cover-up, in my view,” Isaac said of the error and the consultants’ explanation for it. He said the town should consider trying to recover some the engineering fees it paid.
    With construction scheduled to begin April 17, commissioners decided their best option was to try to find new engineers to run the project. Mayor David Cheifetz told Town Manager Linda Stumpf to contact Engenuity Group Inc., the engineering firm the town has on retainer, to see if it can oversee the work. Stumpf said Engenuity ran a similar bridge replacement in Ocean Ridge several years ago.
    “If we start this in April, the very people in charge of the project are the people that got us into this mess in the first place,” Cheifetz said of Mock, Roos. “We’ve got to change the oversight on this, not necessarily the contract.”
    Drawdy Construction of Lake Worth was the only construction firm willing to submit a bid on the project. Michael Gottlieb, vice chair of the town’s zoning commission, said the lack of bidders and the rising costs of labor and materials mean the commission has to move forward with construction because delays will only ensure that the bridge gets more expensive. He said it’s too late to restart the project from scratch, as some residents had suggested.
    “Nobody wants to do the work because it’s too small,” Gottlieb said during the March 24 commission meeting. “The longer we wait, the harder it’s going to be to find a construction company. … Costs will go up.”
    Stumpf said she hoped to have a contract with Engenuity ready for commissioners to approve in a special meeting some time before the April 17 start date.
    In other business, the commission decided on ground rules for survey ballots that will go out to residents on Point Manalapan to assess the interest in installing natural gas service.
    All 144 property owners will receive ballots by mail, probably in May. Each will come with a self-addressed stamped envelope. The town will send ballots to snowbirds at their summer addresses, as well as their Manalapan homes.
    Residents will have 60 days to return the ballots with their yes or no vote for gas service. Town Attorney Keith Davis will hold custody of the ballots, until they all are opened at once in a public meeting after the 60-day period.
    At least 60 percent of the respondents must say yes to gas service for the project to move forward. Commissioners will decide on the ballot language at their April 21 meeting.

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