CHIPLEY — County Commission Chairman Alan Bush said actions taken by FDOT District 3 Secretary Tommy Barfield were “bullying tactics” punishing the county because a commissioner had asked questions about a planned bridge project.
Two Department of Transportation representatives — Jason Peters, director of transportation development, and Regina Battles, program management administrator — appeared before the Washington County Board of County Commissioners on Thursday to ask the board if the county wanted to proceed with a federally funded project to replace a 16-foot bridge on Gainer Road.
The project was scheduled by the DOT to have been bid out on Thursday, but it was held at the order of Barfield after Commissioner Charles Brock contacted the district secretary to ask why the bridge projects were not eligible to receive bids from local engineers.
Peters told the board that the bridge replacement was being held until the DOT heard from the county whether or not it wanted the bridge replaced.
“Wait a minute, I’m confused,” said Commissioner Todd Abbott. “This is the first I am hearing about this board having any concerns about a bridge project.”
“I am probably the one who started this,” Brock said. “I had questions about putting a bridge on a dead-end road that nobody lives on.”
Brock said he noticed that engineering expenses on the proposed small bridge projects were nearly as much as the construction costs, and he noticed that it was the same two or three engineering firms who were getting all the work. Brock contacted Barfield and asked why local firms were not allowed to bid on the projects.
“I know this isn’t our local DOT, but these orders to use these consultants come from higher up,” Brock said.
“You are correct, on the smaller projects, sometimes the design fees take a larger percentage,” Peters said. “Even if it is a smaller project, you still have to do all the engineering, site surveying and permitting as any other project.”
“If we don’t use this money, it’s not going to get done,” said Commissioner Joel Pate. The bridge replacement program operates on federal funds, Peters said, and is awarded to projects in which bridges have scored high in their bi-annual inspections — which means the bridge has problems and needs fixed. The Gainer Road bridge ranked a 63, and a score of 50 means a bridge needs to be replaced, Peters said.
“I would love to have those bridges replaced, just for the drainage issues,” said Dallas Carter, Public Works supervisor for the county.
Peters said the DOT looks “very closely” at construction costs when it comes to bridge projects.
“I know this is coming from Tallahassee, but I would like to see the guidelines changed where any certified engineering firm can bid on these projects,” Brock said.
“We have a saying, ‘A hole in a road will get you in trouble, but a hole in a bridge will get you fired,’” Peters said. “If an engineering firm doesn’t have that bridge expertise, we’re not going to want to use them.”
Peters said the Gainer Road bridge showed evidence of deterioration of wood and an infestation of insects, which contributed to the bridge’s score of 63.
“So wait a minute,” Bush said. “You mean to tell me that because Barfield couldn’t explain to Mr. Brock why local engineers couldn’t bid on a project, he pulled the bridge from bidding? Talk about bullying tactics. That’s just dirty pool.”
Peters said Barfield pulled the project because he wanted to make sure the bridge was something the county officials actually wanted replaced.
“I just want them to be fair,” Brock said. “We’ve got a good engineer, well qualified, and I think we could do that project and save the government money.”
“I have to say, I am embarrassed that this project is being held up because a commissioner asked questions,” Abbott said.
“Now hold on, Mr. Brock has every right to ask questions, both as a commissioner and as a citizen,” Bush said. “But what the secretary did was just irresponsible. He pulled the bridge from the county for no reason. He delayed a project because someone questioned him?”
Peters asked the commissioners to write a letter to the DOT stating that they did, indeed, want to pursue the Gainer Road bridge replacement to get the project back on track.
“We didn’t write a letter asking for the project to be delayed, why do we have to write a letter asking for it to continue?” Bush asked.
“I really just asked who got the jobs, and how they got the jobs,” Brock said. “I think they should be bid out instead of the state just handing them to two or three contractors. I didn’t intend for it to come to this.”
Commissioner Lynn Gothard made a motion that the board go ahead and write a letter asking for the bridge project to be reinstated, and the board approved the motion.