Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mid-county span draws worldwide attention

Designers, builders, financiers sought
From a recent meeting in Raleigh, the Daily Advance article reported:

Staff Writer

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Companies from around the world are expressing interest in designing, financing and building the Mid-Currituck bridge.

At a meeting held in Raleigh last week, representatives from 13 firms discussed the project with officials from the North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

Also in attendance were several hundred people representing companies wanting to handle some aspect of the project, said Grady Rankin, the authority's chief financial officer.

"We were very pleased with the meeting," Rankin said. "I'd describe the interest as high."

The proposed two-lane toll bridge linking Currituck's mainland and Outer Banks is planned to open in 2013. The project's current estimated cost is $459.6 million.

Rankin said representatives from several major European companies are interested because design-build-finance projects like the proposed mid-county bridge are more common in Europe.

"There are significant advantages for bringing the (design-build-finance) teams together under one tent," he said.

It will be North Carolina's first attempt at such a venture.

"There is no doubt the private sector can do it," Rankin said, referring to building the bridge. "I think major question is how much support it will require from the state of North Carolina. That has yet to be determined."

Just because the private sector has expressed interest in the bridge doesn't mean the project can completely be financed with private funds. More than likely there will have to be some state funding, he said.

"One of our objectives is to minimize the costs to the state to get the project off the ground," Rankin said.

It's not clear yet whether one company will be hired to operate and maintain the bridge after it is built.

Ralph Salamie, an engineer with Kiewit, Pacific Structures District in Vancouver, Wash., attended the meeting because his firm is interested in building the bridge. But to land the contract, Kiewit would have to join forces with other firms to handle financing and design, he said.

"If you develop it as a team, and approach the job as a team, it's nothing really out of ordinary, combining people," Salamie said.

Barry Nelms, chairman of the Currituck Board of Commissioners, said the wide interest in the bridge project is a positive sign.

"It is encouraging, because that will mean more competition, and with that, theoretically, you can get the best price and the best design," Nelms said. "We're excited we've got a lot of interest in it."

Nelms said devaluation of the dollar has made projects in America like the mid-county bridge more attractive to foreign-based companies.

"Because construction is down nationwide, it makes this a more favorable time to take on a project of this magnitude," he said.

Although the exact toll on the bridge has not been determined, the Turnpike Authority is projecting that motorists over a 39-year period would pay as much as $12 for a two-way trip. The toll will be collected to pay back investors who are expected to front the bulk of the money needed to fund the estimated $459.6 million project.

"This project has been looked at since the '60s," Nelms said. "I think that it's going to happen. Everybody at the county and state level are in a cooperative mood, and we're going to hopefully make it a very worthwhile, and a really nice bridge."

County Commissioner Gene Gregory, who attended last week's meeting, also sees the interest in the bridge as an encouraging sign.

"It was a great showing," he said. "I think we're well on our way to getting this bridge built. I feel closer to getting the bridge built now than ever. I think the people are finally realizing how badly we need a bridge."

Gregory said the bridge is sorely needed for hurricane evacuation and access to the Outer Banks. Today, the only route to Currituck's northern beaches from the mainland is a trip over the Wright Memorial Bridge and up N.C. Highway 12.

The process of picking a firm to handle the design-build-finance project is expected to take the remainder of the year, Rankin said.

He said the authority will soon be seeking information from companies about their qualifications to build the bridge.

"It is sort of a two-step process," he said. "We will select three or four teams, then we'll submit a request for proposals that is much more specific about what they propose to do."