Gretna — Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts called for an investigation into a Metairie engineering firm that has been paid more than $4 million to design ramps for the West Bank Expressway after some state engineers found the firm’s plans “unconventional” and difficult to understand last year.
Roberts asked Parish President John Young to conduct an internal investigation into reports that plans developed by Design Engineering Inc. for construction of the MacArthur Interchange project were flawed. Roberts wants to determine if any parish funds were spent on unusable plans and what steps are being taken to recover that money. However, he said because the engineering work was paid for with $4.1 million in state money, it’s ultimately the state’s job to make sure the work was adequate, not the parish’s.
“The parish is not constructing the project, the parish is not managing the project,” Roberts said. “The state should only make payments on plans that are usable.”
At issue are plans Design Engineering developed under a decade-old plan to alleviate congestion at Manhattan and Barataria boulevards. Although the state is paying for engineering on the project, Design Engineering was selected by the parish through a cooperative endeavor agreement with the state.
According to the DOTD’s website, Design Engineering developed 16 different plans before deciding on one that included the demolition of the existing ramps at Manhattan Boulevard and changing their size and location. Ramps would be moved closer to the Harvey Canal and Peters Road under phase 1 of that plan. The final plan closely resembles the original plan, proposed in 2002.
But, in late 2011, the state found the plans Design Engineering developed to be unusable, according to emails recently released by State Rep. Patrick Connick. Engineers expressed concern that the plans didn’t account for long recognized cracking in the West Bank Expressway and were “not orderly.”
Those emails show state engineers discussing several options for the project, including scrapping the plans and starting with a new design because of the difficulty in salvaging what was in place. Eventually, state officials decided to allow Design Engineering to rework its plans and to have them reviewed by another more experienced engineering firm, the emails show.
Connick said the emails are another example of broken promises and waste associated with Crescent City Connection toll revenue. He has been an ardent opponent of renewing the tolls, and he was the one who brought the state emails to Roberts’ attention.
Connick lashed out at Design Engineering, saying they were only hired because of political connections and failed to do a quality job. He questioned why the firm was hired outside the normal process for selecting engineering firms.
“The whole purpose of the tolls is to reward those who are in power and who are connected,” Connick said.
Toll revenue accounted for about $2.7 million of the engineering payments on the project.
“There is no quality of return for all this money we spent,” Connick said. “All we have is a lot of spending and no results.”
Design Engineering did not return calls for comment. Voters will decide the tolls’ fate Nov. 6.
Parish President John Young said the parish will look into all of its spending but noted that all the money provided to Design Engineering came from the state. Kazem Alikhani, the parish’s public works directors, said that the state approved Design Engineering’s work at every step of the process. Young echoed Roberts’ comments that the state should examine how it spends its money.
“The investigation has to be done at the state level as well,” Young said.
Bambi Hall, a DOTD spokeswoman, said that Design Engineering was selected by the parish with the state’s approval. Hall said the state is funding the project while the parish “owns” it. According to DOTD’s website, the parish is responsible for moving the project to the shovel-ready phase and assumes liability for any engineering errors. She directed questions about the company’s hiring and performance to the parish. The project remains in the design phase and has not proceeded to the construction phase. Although toll opponents have often derided the fees for producing no results, they have been used to fund the widening of Barataria Boulevard and General de Gaulle Drive, according to Hall. Roughly $15 million in toll revenue went into a drainage project on General de Gaulle Drive as well.