The bidding process for rail upgrades on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge is back on track after a delay of over four months, but it has tightened a construction schedule that was supposed to begin by the end of this year.
The Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission needs a contractor to oversee the $40 million project, which is part of a $100 million plan to make the bridge safer for commuters.
Carlton Dufrechou, general manager of the commission, said bid advertisement for the rails should be published next week, with contracts likely being awarded by the end of October.
The process was expected to begin in mid-April, with hopes to receive bids by June.
But officials have been debating whether to allow an alternative to steel to be considered. Houston-based AIMS International asserted that its patented fiberglass reinforced plastic rail system could be a substitute for steel in the 24-mille bridge’s specifications.
Dufrechou sought an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office on whether the technology adhered to public bid laws, considering it was a proprietary product and other companies would not be able to offer a competitive bid. The Attorney General’s office said that AIMS could bid if its product was deemed an equal to steel.
This week, the project’s engineer of record, Metairie-based Gulf Engineers & Consultants, settled the debate by saying the product was not equal to steel.
AIMS’s alternative passed the crash test, but Dufrechou questions its longevity compared to steel.
“Because it’s so cutting edge, there is no track record,” Dufrechou said.
The safety upgrades also include new segmented shoulders on the bridge.
Design teams have been selected for both projects, and a contractor is in place for the shoulder upgrades.
“We are very anxious to get (the railings) out for bid,” Dufrechou said. “We are looking to get both of these projects underway.”
Both are still expected to begin by the end of the year and be completed in December 2019. He said the start date for the railings has become tighter due to the delays.
“We will know better once the bids are received this October,” Dufrechou said.
That’s also when it should become more clear whether steel tariffs are affecting costs, he said.
Drivers are helping pay for the overall project via a toll hike enacted in May 2017. The toll rose from $2 to $3 for southbound drivers with toll tags and from $3 to $5 for customers who pay with cash. The northbound side of the bridge remains free of charge.
Larger vehicles pay more. Tolls rose from $15 to $23 for an 18-wheeler cash-paying customer. Toll-tag drivers of 18-wheelers now pay $22.50 per trip.
Dufrechou said the project will be the most significant safety improvement the Causeway has seen since the second span was built in 1969. Traffic is reportedly six times heavier now than what it was then.