By Dan Moffett
Manalapan town commissioners are learning some hard lessons about the economics of bridge building.
Back in 2013 when they started discussing replacing the aging Audubon Causeway bridge, engineers estimated the cost at about $760,000.
Last year, when the commission started looking for contractors to do the work, the estimate had swollen to $850,000.
At their meeting on Feb. 24, commissioners got the latest number from the only construction company willing to bid on the project: $1.3 million, roughly a 70 percent increase over the initial estimate.
An incredulous Mayor David Cheifetz wanted to know how the town’s engineers missed the mark by so much.
“We relied on your estimate,” Cheifetz told Henry Glaus of Mock, Roos & Associates, a West Palm Beach consulting firm. “We based our tax rate, our mill rate on your estimate. Now we’ve got this huge difference. I really don’t understand how in a short period of time this cost escalated.”
Blame a lot of the increase on the recession and the side effects of the ongoing recovery, Glaus said.
Most companies are just too busy to be interested in a project of this size — a simple 30-foot span of concrete and steel — when construction is enjoying a robust revival in South Florida.
During the recession, Glaus said, many supervisors and skilled workers retired or quit the industry, and many foreign laborers returned to their homelands. Companies don’t have the manpower to satisfy the current demand in the marketplace, he said.
Despite putting the project out to bid twice, only one firm was willing to submit a bid: Drawdy Construction of Lake Worth.
“If you look at it as a percentage, it blows your mind,” Glaus said of the increased cost. “It was just not possible to come up with a reasonable estimate.”
Jeff Bergmann, a consultant with Bridge Design Associates in Royal Palm Beach, told the commission that material costs have “skyrocketed” over the last two years. “Concrete is up 20 percent,” he said, “and steel 50 percent.”
Mayor Pro Tem Peter Isaac, the town’s point man on the project, said commissioners had no alternative but to accept the lone bidder and try to mitigate the cost overruns going forward. Otherwise, it will be impossible to start construction by April and finish it by November before the tourist season gets into high gear.
Finding another willing bidder is unlikely anyway, he said.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” Isaac said. “We have to bite the bullet.”
The commission unanimously approved awarding the bid to Drawdy, with the hope of squeezing out some savings in the months ahead.
In other business:
• Commissioners agreed to continue discussions with Point Manalapan residents and Florida Public Utilities about the possibility of installing natural gas service.
About 30 people attended a February meeting at the town library during which a gas company representative answered questions. The town plans to survey residents on the Point to find out if there’s enough interest to warrant continuing talks with the company.
“We don’t have a dog in this fight,” Cheifetz said of the commission’s role. “We want to give everyone as much information as we can and then let the chips fall where they may.”
• Town Attorney Keith Davis reported that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a suit brought against the town by residents Louis and Wendy Navellier. The case has been in the courts for almost 10 years, since code officials cited the Navelliers for building a cabana too close to a property line. In December, the Navelliers paid $232,000 to the town in accumulated fines.