Board hits reset button on N.O. airport contract _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN MCCUSKER -- Passengers line up for flights at Louis Armstrong International Airport last July.

The New Orleans Aviation Board, faced with two bidders at odds over the fairness of evaluations of their proposals to build a half-billion-dollar new terminal at Louis Armstrong International Airport, chose Monday to restart the process rather than take sides in the dispute.

Reissuing the request for proposals to build the $546 million terminal will delay the project, which Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to complete by the city’s tricentennial in 2018, but it keeps the Aviation Board from having to decide the thorny issue of whether an evaluation committee erred in the scores it gave one of the bidders — a ruling that could have led to legal challenges that would have taken even more time to resolve.

After hearing Monday from both Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro, the firm that had challenged the committee’s scoring, and its competitor, Parsons Odebrecht, and holding a lengthy executive session, Chairwoman Cheryl Teamer announced the board’s decision to reissue the request for proposals. The move was made “in the best interest of the city of New Orleans,” she said.

“There have been issues raised by the Hunt protest, public comment and publicity about the scoring,” Teamer said. “These issues may have impacted the scoring and the subsequent recommendation.”

Awarding the contract for a new terminal to replace the existing airport facilities has already been a complicated process.

The 11-member evaluation committee of city and other officials charged with making a recommendation initially gave both firms identical scores of 999 out of a possible 1,100 points — 100 points for each member.

That set off a second round of evaluations in which Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro’s score dropped to 956 and Parsons Odebrecht’s score rose to 1,002.

In response, the Hunt group filed a formal protest, arguing that members of the committee did not properly evaluate Hunt’s proposal the first time. The protest said the consortium was improperly docked points for failing to meet requirements for the involvement of businesses owned by women or minorities — something Hunt blamed on a technical error with paperwork — and also should have received a higher score on a component involving the price of the project.

Both firms were instructed to use the project’s entire budget in their proposals, but Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro said members of the committee did not give it credit for planning to spend $14 million more on actual construction — as opposed to profit, fees and other costs — than its competition.

In its response to the protest, Parsons Odebrecht claimed the issue with its competitor’s certification should have disqualified the Hunt bid entirely.

It also said the committee was allowed to subjectively decide how to award points.

Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro is a consortium — created to bid on the airport job — of an Indianapolis-based firm and three major contractors in the New Orleans market. Parsons Odebrecht is a longtime joint venture made up of firms based in Brazil and California.

The argument that the evaluation committee members’ scoring was necessarily subjective was largely echoed by lawyers for the Aviation Board, who said that agreeing with Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro on that point would have meant finding the committee “abused its discretion” or “acted in an arbitrary manner.”

Both companies made presentations to the board Monday, largely reiterating points they had previously made in filings with the airport.

Several board members reiterated the need to make the right decision in explaining their votes to restart the process Monday.

“It’s a tough decision, tough place for us to be, but we’ve got to get this right,” board member Jim Hudson said. “We can’t make a decision that’s not in the best interest of the New Orleans area.”

By starting from scratch, the board may have avoided a potentially lengthy court battle over the contract, because either joint venture would have been able to sue if the board had picked the other bidder.

Airport officials anticipate the request for proposals will be released again in the next few weeks, with the deadline for responses several weeks after that.

That would set back the project, which initially was expected to be completed by the end of April 2018, but could still leave enough time for the new terminal to be opened during the city’s tricentennial year.

Though not cited in the Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro protest, other issues also have surfaced since the original bids were submitted. Community organizers with Stand with Dignity and other groups raised questions about a 2010 lawsuit by a contractor that accused an employee of Woodward Design + Build, a consultant on the Parsons Odebrecht proposal, of using racial epithets.

In comments to the board, Woodward President Paul Flower denied those claims and noted that the allegation — which came in the middle of legal wrangling between the firm and a subcontractor — did not result in Woodward having to pay any monetary damages for racial bias.

There also has been discussion of New Orleans Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant’s employment a decade ago with Parsons Construction, one of the firms involved in the Parsons Odebrecht joint venture.

Grant and two city employees who work under him were all on the evaluation committee and were responsible for most of the points taken away from the Hunt group’s score in the second round.

In explaining their lower scores for Hunt, they cited what they said was the proposed project manager’s lack of experience with this type of contract and the likelihood that Parsons Odebrecht would employ a wider array of local contractors.

It’s not yet clear whether the evaluation committee — consisting of city appointees, airport and state officials, and outside experts — for the new round of proposals will have the same members as the first time around.

The need to remove potential doubts about the selection of the construction team was stressed by New Orleans Deputy Mayor Emily Arata, who read a prepared statement to the board at its Monday meeting.

“The mayor’s sole interest is to ensure we have a fair and open process that results in the selection of whichever proposal is in the best interest of the city and can deliver this iconic project on time and on task,” Arata said. “The mayor reformed the city’s procurement process so that decisions are made based on what you know, not who you know. The process is designed to value competence and expertise as well as local, disadvantaged business participation. Selection committees comprised of experts meet publicly to review the merits of proposals.”

Aviation Board members echoed those sentiments.

“This is a very important decision for the city or the region,” said board member Doug Thornton, an executive vice president of SMG, which manages the Superdome. “We need to remove any questions about the process.”