Katrina cars still not being towed
By James Varney Staff writer
Negotiations on a contract to rid a landscape checkered with cars wrecked by hurricanes Katrina and Rita continued Thursday, but a firm date on which towing of the eyesores will commence remains unset, officials said.
Louisiana’s attempt to drag away the abandoned, dirt-caked vehicles has been dogged by setback and scandal, but the situation appeared to clarify 15 days ago when the state picked DRC Inc. of Mobile to handle the job.
That selection came after the state’s first attempt to award a towing contract unraveled over questions about the financial wherewithal of an obscure consortium that bid roughly $62 million. The state’s false start, in turn, followed an embarrassing chain of events for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, whose administration first spurned a cash offer from car crushers to take care of the thousands of flooded cars cluttering city streets, then backed off a controversial plan to pay a national engineering firm more than $20 million to tow the cars before joining the state contracting effort.
On Thursday, the Department of Environmental Quality, the agency that will oversee the work, and DRC continued to hammer out the details of the job, such as picking the locations at which the junkers will be stored and mapping out the logistics of the State Police tagging the vehicles and conducting the background paperwork. Both sides insist they are eager to see towing begin, but neither was willing to say exactly when that might happen. “We’re looking at getting started just as soon as possible, hopefully in the next few days,” said Robert Isakson , DRC’s top executive. The company’s bid of $33.8 million merited the job after a lower bidder failed to meet bond requirements.
DEQ spokesman Darrin Mann also said he hopes things get going soon.
“Of course I’d like to say within 10 days but I can’t say that because then who knows what will happen in the next 10 days,” spokesman Darrin Mann said. “Once we approve the operational plan, which should happen quickly, hopefully they’ll be able to start almost right away.”
Similarly, neither Mann nor Isakson could say how long the work will take once it begins. Troopers have continued to whittle the estimate of ruined cars, trimming a figure that once stood at 150,000 to below 100,000, Mann said. In addition, the contract calls for the removal and storage of some 50,000 boats also ruined in last year’s horrific 1-2 hurricane punch.
“The speed of this will really be controlled by the State Police,” Isakson said, noting they could swoop down on a junker within 48 hours of the troopers slapping a sticker on it making it towable.
Meanwhile, low bidder Wastech Inc., is protesting the latest contract award. The company’s $28 million bid was thrown out because it did not fulfill the bonding requirements, according to Louisiana’s Office of State Purchasing. Those requirements, calling for every bidder to have a letter from a bonding company guaranteeing they would issue a performance bond equal to the amount of the contract, were stiffened after the collapse of the first towing contract between the state and a Georgia janitorial company and its flooded 9th Ward contracting partner.
In a press release, Wastech president and chief executive officer Richard Tuorto said DRC’s bid was plagued with the same problems that allegedly undid Wastech. Specifically, Tuorto noted DRC’s bond guarantee letter came on May 8, three days after the bids were opened, and that it, “was so technically deficient that it failed to provide any of the information required by the (office of state purchasing).”
Denise Lea, the director of state purchasing, confirmed the May 8 date, but said the bid specifications allowed for a copy of the bond guarantee letter when proposals were submitted, then required a signed hard copy of the letter within a week. DRC’s May 8 letter satisfied that requirement and was identical in every respect save the date of the copy submitted with the bid, Lea said.
As for Tuorto’s more sweeping generalization of the DRC offer’s shortcomings, Lea noted, “obviously I disagree.”
Lea rejected Wastech’s initial protest, and on Tuesday the company asked for an appeal, which is permitted by state law. In the meantime, however, Lea issued a, “ determination to move the project forward,” which allowed work to continue while the appeal runs it course. A final decision on the protest must come in the next 12 days, she said.
“I wouldn’t say it is typical, but protests are part of the process and it’s not unusual to see this when you have large dollar projects,” Lea said.
(James Varney can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3386.)