The Sarah Mildred Long Bridge between Portsmouth, N.H., and Kittery carried 15,000 drivers a day over the Piscataqua River before it was closed for replacement a year and a half ago. The new bridge, above, is set to open Friday at the written direction of Maine officials. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

For at least a year, Maine Department of Transportation officials and executives from Cianbro, the state’s most recognized construction firm, have battled behind the scenes over who is at fault for the seven-month delay in opening the state’s most expensive bridge.

State officials have accused Pittsfield-based Cianbro of violating its contract to build the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, threatening to stop work on the $165 million project and withdrawing key staff from the project.

Cianbro executives have been equally tenacious, routinely asking for contract changes and extra payment to deal with chronic bridge design errors, and to deal with state engineers who they say are in over their heads. At one point, state officials hired a third party to investigate the construction schedule and forestall a possible multimillion-dollar legal claim by Cianbro.

Internal correspondence between the state and Cianbro, obtained by the Portland Press Herald through a Freedom of Access request, reveals increasing frustration on both sides as the opening of the Route 1 bridge slipped away from its target date of Sept. 1, 2017.

The bridge – which replaces a span across the Piscataqua River that connects Kittery and Portsmouth, New Hampshire – is set to open Friday at the written direction of Maine officials. That will come as a relief to the 15,000 drivers who used the bridge daily before it was closed a year and a half ago. The replacement is a joint project of the Maine and New Hampshire departments of transportation, but Maine has taken the lead on construction.

A review of documents indicates Cianbro and the Maine DOT have apparently prepared for an expensive contract dispute once the construction dust settles.

Failure to meet the original bridge opening deadline means Cianbro could be on the hook for fines of $1,000 per day, according to terms of the contract. Cianbro, meanwhile, says it incurred costs in the “tens of millions” during the three-year project and has made it clear it intends to claim payment from the department.

Andi Vigue, CEO of Cianbro Corp.

Contacted by phone last week, Cianbro CEO Andi Vigue denied an interview request, citing a confidentiality order in the contract. Maine DOT said last week that it does not think a legal battle is inevitable. Cianbro has been paid almost $160 million for its work to date, about $1.5 million more than its original contract amount for the project.

“As would be the situation on any large project of this size and complexity, there are areas where Cianbro and Maine DOT disagree. At some point in time after the bridge is open, and the project is closer to completion, Maine DOT anticipates sitting down with Cianbro to discuss our differences, and hopefully, resolve them,” Joyce Taylor, the department’s chief engineer, said in a prepared statement.

DUELING ACCUSATIONS

Taylor’s conciliatory tone is at odds with a strongly worded letter she sent to Vigue on Feb. 23 after the company said the bridge would not be open until mid-May. The letter said Maine and New Hampshire were “extremely troubled” by Cianbro’s latest projection to open the bridge in May, “disturbed” by its explanation for the delay and “frustrated” by the company’s failure to complete the project on time.

Cianbro was hired because “of its unwavering confidence that it portrayed in being able to deliver a completed project on time and under budget,” Taylor wrote. Instead, because of delays there was rampant public speculation whether the bridge is a “$158 million lemon.”

Joyce Taylor, chief engineer, Maine Department of Transportation

“If we are not able to come to a solution to expedite the bridge’s opening, we will be forced to direct Cianbro to open the bridge and reassess Cianbro’s role in the project moving forward,” Taylor wrote. She said the department was considering a written notice of default, another way of saying it believed Cianbro breached a material provision of the contract.

Cianbro hasn’t taken the accusations lying down.

The worker-owned company employs 4,000 people in 40 states, including 1,500 in Maine. It is regularly contracted for major government construction, including a recent $215 million project to build port facilities in New York and build a $100 million electric service platform for an offshore wind farm in Massachusetts.

“For the state to insinuate now that Cianbro made misleading or inaccurate representations in its proposal that have now led to the project being late is wrong,” Vigue said in a Feb. 27 rebuttal letter to Taylor.

The company was forced to work with incomplete and inaccurate bridge designs that resulted in an “extraordinary” number of changes, Vigue said. It also dealt with Maine DOT managers who were “ill-equipped and unprepared for the deluge of issues that were forthcoming,” he wrote.

“In the best interest of the traveling public and communities on both states, we have continued and will do so until Cianbro’s scope is completed – all at a cost of tens of millions of dollars to Cianbro’s detriment,” Vigue wrote.

DELAYS FROM THE START

Over almost three years, Maine DOT publicly committed to opening the bridge to traffic in September 2017. Privately, the projected target date to open the bridge started slipping in March 2015, just three months after construction began. By the beginning of last year, the department started to worry that the bridge wouldn’t be open in time, and about the public backlash that might create.

“As I said to Andi (Vigue), I’m quite concerned about the schedule,” Taylor said in a March 2, 2017, email to Cianbro Vice President Keith Anderson, who said he was going to spend more time on the work site to help his team get “over the hump” on some challenges.

“The people in this area need this bridge,” Taylor said. “I’ve been nervous about the lack of experience I’ve seen from the Cianbro side. Lots of good young people but they don’t seem . . . to offer solution (sic) real time to keep things going.”

Cianbro’s numerous requests for design clarification were raised two months later, when Taylor emailed Vigue to tell him that New Hampshire and federal officials, who helped fund the bridge, “continue to question” requested changes.

“While I’ve heard you say ‘the contract plans are unbuildable,’ if that were true, it’s also seen as a reflection on Cianbro” because it started working on the project in the design phase, Taylor wrote.

The email followed a frustrating meeting of project staff, at which, Taylor said, Cianbro managers spoke over and cut off Maine DOT personnel.

Vigue said he understood the frustration, but there was a way the company and department could make progress while “resolving financial issues.”

“I believe there is avoidance on several issues by the department,” Vigue wrote.

THIRD-PARTY INVESTIGATOR

Maine officials pushed back against anticipated claims from Cianbro again in June 2017. At the time, the department had spent all but $431,909 of its $4.4 million contingency budget, Maine DOT resident engineer Ron Taylor, Joyce Taylor’s husband, said in an email to department staff.

“I still believe we have been severely impacted by the failure of Cianbro to staff the project as promised and as required by specification,” Ron Taylor said. “We gladly paid the money to get a properly staffed project and we didn’t get it.”

Staff appeared blindsided in July, when Cianbro abruptly changed the opening date to April 2018. At that point, Ron Taylor suggested hiring a third party to examine Cianbro’s construction timeline.

“They are playing games with the schedule for some reason,” he said.

“That’s unacceptable,” Joyce Taylor responded, adding that she would speak with Vigue.

Less than a month later, Joyce Taylor asked Debora Farrell, the department’s procurement director, for permission to hire HDR Engineering, a national firm, to determine if Cianbro’s delays were warranted.

“We are potentially looking at a multimillion-dollar claim from Cianbro on the SML project,” Joyce Taylor said.

HDR was hired in late August with a $200,000 budget. The firm has not finished its work, said Maine DOT spokesman Ted Talbot.

HEATED EXCHANGES

Throughout construction, Cianbro has maintained that the plans it was given to work on were incomplete and that the changes it had to make created delays. An example cropped up in August, when Kaven Philbrook, Cianbro’s project manager, said the company needed direction and intended to ask for extra compensation on two construction issues: a problem with the bridge’s cantilevers and curb adjustments.

Department officials took that letter as a threat to stop working on the bridge.

“The ultimatum given in your letter is not only contrary to our contract, but also not in keeping with the spirit of cooperation necessary to deliver this vital project to the citizens and businesses of the States of Maine and New Hampshire,” Ron Taylor said in an Aug. 24 letter to Philbrook.

Another prickly exchange occurred in October, when Maine officials balked at Cianbro’s request for late-season paving by subcontractor Shaw Bros. Construction from Gorham. In a series of letters between Oct. 31 and Nov. 15, Philbrook indicated that Cianbro would ask for more money to cover the cost to speed up construction and open the bridge by the end of 2017.

Maine and New Hampshire DOT officials were critical of that request.

“We’re doing what we have to do to get Shaw Brothers to open the bridge this year,” Joyce Taylor said in an email to Maine and New Hampshire officials. “I’m not happy about being held ransom and (sic) but we need this bridge to open.” The bill for late-season paving came to $81,649, the state said.

Later, Philbrook said Cianbro “has every right to pave this bridge in spring 2018 due to the impacts we have experienced for which Cianbro is not responsible,” and should not be held to the original deadline because it never received a complete bridge design.

Jeff Folsom, a Maine DOT resident engineer on the project, responded quickly to Cianbro’s letter in an email exchange with Maine DOT staff.

“Cianbro misunderstood,” Folsom said, adding that the company had an obligation to open the bridge and would not have a winter work suspension. “I think we just need a yes or no. Are they going to pave it or do we need to hire someone to finish and deduct it from monies due Cianbro. The letters have got to stop.”

They didn’t.

CLAIM OF WEATHER DELAYS DISCOUNTED

Through January, letters flew back and forth between Maine DOT and Cianbro as the deadline for opening the bridge to traffic continued to drag out.

When Cianbro said in early January that it would file a claim because of “uncontrollable weather events” such as freezing ice and snowstorms, Maine quickly shot down the request.

“The weather encountered is not uncommon for this time of year in this area,” Ron Taylor wrote in a Jan. 16 letter to Philbrook.

A week later, Maine DOT accused Cianbro of removing two key personnel from the project without warning, in violation of the contract.

On the same day, Cianbro project engineer Peter Malikowski asked Ron Taylor for written confirmation that the department ordered Cianbro staff to open the bridge by Jan. 31.

Maine DOT had not given that order, but wanted to know what uncompleted work was continuing to delay the opening, Taylor said in response.

“We are increasingly under scrutiny as to why the bridge is five months late,” he said.

Despite the animosity, the bridge was commissioned in January and certified safe in early March by Hardesty and Hanover, the Boston-based engineer of record for the project.

There are no plans for a ribbon-cutting ceremony when it opens Friday.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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Twitter: PeteL_McGuire