Turnpike work involves firms tied to scandal
The average motorist notices rolling hills, smooth pavement and landslide fences along an eight-mile stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Plum and Monroeville. Its overpasses and bridges look like hundreds of others along the toll highway.
To the commission that maintains the 552-mile turnpike, now mired in a corruption scandal, work on that section between the Allegheny Valley and Pittsburgh exits is too big for one engineering firm.
“It's a complex project,” turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo said. The project is a $240 million plan to widen the highway to six lanes.
The work involves two firms tied to the scandal.
In October, the five-member Turnpike Commission hired Mackin Engineering Inc. of Findlay to do design work along one four-mile section and York-based Buchart Horn Inc. to design the other.
Each firm will get about $12 million. They were among seven companies highly recommended for the work, based on experience from similar projects, the turnpike said.
A grand jury report alleging turnpike corruption names both companies. Their executives testified that they made campaign contributions to gain favor, according to the presentment that led to charges this month against eight former turnpike officials and vendors. No one with either firm faces charges.
Using multiple engineering firms along such a short stretch of highway is not unusual, said Martin Pietrucha, a professional engineer who directs the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute at Penn State University.
That can prevent firms from being stretched too thin and missing deadlines, and competition keeps costs down, he said.
DeFebo said the turnpike tries to limit sections under construction. He said a 12-mile construction zone for a Somerset area project “created major disruptions.”
Work to widen the eight-mile stretch would start in 2018.
‘A level playing field'
Dean I. Mackin, president and CEO of his firm, said he welcomes policy changes the turnpike instituted during the past two years, including stricter rules for awarding professional services contracts such as engineering work.
“You'd have to not be a human being to not be upset about that,” Mackin, 59, said of allegations that officials steered contracts to companies based on campaign donations and gifts. “I think the changes will help create more of a level playing field.”
Mackin is among more than a dozen firms mentioned in the grand jury report. It said a former Mackin vice president became frustrated when the firm did not land a design contract for the Mon-Fayette Expressway project and griped to a turnpike engineer: “We were told that if we made the right calls and we did the right things and we made whatever contributions we were asked to make, we were told we were getting that job.”
Buchart Horn did not return calls. A Buchart senior vice president expressed dismay that he was not picked to be on the host committee for a gubernatorial fundraiser in 2006, noting such involvement could obtain his firm “favored-nation status” with turnpike decision-makers, the grand jury said.
After losing the Mon-Fayette design contract, the former Mackin executive testified that he discovered “the prize design contracts went to the people who contributed the most” to political campaigns.
“I don't accept that,” said Italo V. Mackin, founder and chairman, who noted the vice president — his son-in-law — resigned in 2009.
He said Mackin was the lone firm hired to perform an environmental study of the highway corridor and remained under contract to do environmental work needed during final design.
With about 150 engineering firms competing for work in Pennsylvania, Italo Mackin said, “You have to prepare yourself that you're not going to win every job you go after. When we didn't get (a Mon-Fayette design contract), we accepted it, moved on and continued to submit for turnpike contracts,” as Mackin has since 1978.
Mackin is one of three firms in the grand jury report that won engineering contracts since new policies took effect in March 2012.
An employee group known as the Technical Evaluation Team now judges applicants' qualifications. It places firms in one of three categories — “highly recommended,” “recommended” or “not recommended” — and summarizes their strengths and weaknesses.
A second employee group, the Professional Services Procurement Committee, reviews the report. Findings from both go to the commission, which awards contracts.
Before the policies, one committee that included the CEO and chief operating officer had reviewed bids. The grand jury said problems arose when former CEO Joe Brimmeier and former COO George Hatalowich overruled committee members and recommended hiring firms that did not have the best qualifications.
DeFebo said work must go to a “highly recommended” firm, but “the commissioners may consider, when applicable, Pennsylvania presences (of applicant firms), equitable distribution of work, a firm's geographic location, commitment to diversity, etc.”
Former PennDOT Secretary Allen D. Biehler and Pietrucha said the contracting policies are similar to those at other transportation agencies.
“I don't know if you need multiple steps in the review process, but if they think they need to do that to make sure they get an honest review, it's not a bad thing,” said Bieh-ler, a turnpike commissioner from 2003 to 2011 because of his position with PennDOT.
Biehler was on a technical review committee that evaluated bids for the $3.5 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement over New York's Hudson River. All bidders' names were redacted from documents to remove any suspicion of favoritism, he said.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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