Contractors, Corps Officials Discuss Dredging At AGC Roundtable

Representatives of the Mississippi Valley Branch of the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) gathered in New Orleans, La., February 28 and March 1 for the organization’s 2018 construction roundtable meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. In total, about 140 AGC stakeholders took part in the two-day event.

“The Mississippi Valley AGC Conference was extremely beneficial, because it brought together federal leaders and administrators who understand the process of delivering projects and the leaders in industry who understand the practice of delivering projects in a very dynamic system found along the mighty Mississippi superhighway,” said AGC Mississippi Valley Branch Executive Vice President Stephen Gambrell following the meeting.

A dredging issues roundtable, a program execution and policy session, and a specifications-focused session highlighted the conference, which also included an awards luncheon, a scholarship trust meeting and a dinner at the nearby National WWII Museum.

Gambrell said tackling all of those topics together was not only helpful but crucial as contractors and federal agencies, particularly the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, work together to improve and maintain the nation’s infrastructure.

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“The issues of dredging, specifications, performance and safety ultimately refine and help assure that we learn and improve the process of developing and delivering infrastructure in today’s climate,” he said.

The dredging session, held on the first day of the conference, offered Corps representatives and dredging industry professionals an opportunity to not only ask and answer questions but to discuss potential solutions for a specific issues.

Andy Hall, the Corps chair for the dredging session and dredge program coordinator for the Mississippi Valley Engineer Division, read topics of discussion and information requests for the dredging session, while Greg Ford with Choctaw Transportation Company, the AGC chair for the session, read the Corps’ responses.

Lower Miss Deepening

The first item discussed was the plan to deepen the Lower Mississippi River to 50 feet. The Corps’ tentatively selected plan calls for deepening the river to 50 feet from 22 miles below Head of Passes (BHP) to 232.4 miles above Head of Passes (AHP) at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge. The current benefit-cost ratio is 7.2:1.

“In Southwest Pass, material will be removed with a combination of cutterhead and hopper dredges,” Ford said. “Material from dredging from Mile 6 AHP to Mile 19.5 BHP will be used for beneficial use, under the federal standard.”

Material below Mile 19.5 will be placed in an approved disposal site.

Ford said the Corps anticipates completing that stretch of the project within one year from start to finish.

Further upriver, deepening the crossings will occur in a second phase and will take an estimated four years.

“On the upper portion, material will be removed from the 12 crossings with a dustpan dredge and placed in adjacent crossings for natural depth disposition downriver,” Ford said.

Total cost for the project is estimated at $237.67 million.

A member of the roundtable group asked about using hopper dredges on the crossings rather than dustpan dredges. Another Corps representative said hoppers have been used on the crossings before, but that was when dustpans were in high demand on shallow-draft channels.

The group also discussed how the Corps and dredging contractors share information on pipelines and utility crossings in waterways, and the risk of dredges damaging those crossings. Industry representatives urged the Corps to form a relationship with the CAMO Group, also called the Coastal and Marine Operators Pipeline Industry Initiative. CAMO Group, they said, could be a valuable partner for tracking down the precise location and current owners of pipelines and utility crossings within waterways. There was some back-and-forth discussion between Corps and industry representatives over which group was ultimately responsible for identifying and avoiding impacts to pipelines and submerged utility crossings. Ultimately, all agreed it was a partnership between the Corps, contractors and utility companies.

Corps Funding

The group also delved into funding the Mississippi Valley Division will receive for navigation projects in fiscal year 2018. The U.S. government—and by extension the Corps of Engineers—is again operating this year under a continuing resolution and not a full budget, which hampers the total amount of funds available for Corps projects. Congress has typically bolstered the Corps’ budget through supplemental spending plans. This year is no different, although much of the supplemental funding to the Corps will go to areas impacted by hurricanes in 2017.

The Corps was also asked to address several contracting issues, including multi-year dredging projects, contract periods and option hours, and government estimates, particularly in relation to fuel prices. The contract period, in particular, led to discussion from the panel.

“AGC requests that contract periods realistically reflect the actual amount of work to be performed as well as the actual funding available to perform the work,” the contract periods and option hours item read. “The Corps should not hold the contractor to unreasonable length of time without work nor should the Corps hold the contractor to an IDIQ contract after all funds have been expended and the Corps has no expectation of additional funds for the contract.”

Ford said he believed that issue was connected to the Red River, which he called a “flashy system.”

“In recent years, we’ve definitely made a concerted effort to release the contractor after all the requirements are met and there is no reasonable chance of additional funds,” Ford said, reading the Corps response. “This requirement is included to mitigate non-routine river stage fluctuations resulting in siltation and requiring additional dredging.”

Hall elaborated that sometimes contracts require a dredge to remain in an area for 365 days or be able to remobilize within 7 or 10 days.

“For a cutter dredge, this essentially means the contractor has to plan on the equipment being there for the entire year, even after the initial assignment is or was complete, with a good portion of the year being idle,” Hall said. “The contractor’s got to pick up that fixed cost during the expected work window.”

Panelists admitted that Corps contracting of late has been somewhat less restrictive.

“We believe it’s going in the right direction and we appreciate it, but we believe you should have a fixed period of time in your contracts,” one panelist said.

Day two of the conference featured remarks from both Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, commander of the Mississippi Valley Engineer Division and president of the Mississippi River Commission, and the newly-elected president of AGC, Eddie Steward.

Kaiser praised the Mississippi River for the critical role it plays in the day-to-day well-being of the United States.

“You can go east, west, anywhere you want to, because of the Mississippi River,” Kaiser said.

Kaiser said he is eager to see President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan take shape, adding that he fully anticipates regulatory and permitting reforms to be a part of the infrastructure funding coming the Corps’ way.

Stewart assured members of the AGC’s Mississippi Valley Branch that their organization has a seat at the table within the Trump administration and that AGC is pressuring congressional leaders as they craft the infrastructure plan.

AGC members then heard annual reports from each Corps district located within the Mississippi River Valley with regard to anticipated funding and dredging and construction schedules. The conference finished out the afternoon with a session focused solely on specifications issues, with Kaiser and Jamey Sanders from Choctaw Transportation Company chairing the session for the Mississippi Valley Division and the AGC, respectively.