The contractor heading up Waterbury’s Main Street reconstruction project is facing sanctions after a whistleblower alerted officials that the company allegedly engaged in “willful, nonconforming services” when building bridges in southern Vermont.
On Friday, the Vermont Agency of Transportation announced that J.A. McDonald is no longer eligible for additional projects for the state or that are funded through state grants.
According to the agency, J.A. McDonald’s building practices will result in shorter-than-expected life spans for four bridges the company built in Bennington and Guilford.
“Safety is the No. 1 concern of this agency and has been our top concern in this matter,” said Joe Flynn, state transportation secretary. “While there is no immediate public safety concern, the agency will aggressively investigate any actions that allegedly violate our contracts, threaten the integrity of our infrastructure, or undermine the public trust.”
State officials used ground-penetrating radar, ultrasonic tests and visual examinations on the bridges — located on Route 279 in Bennington and Interstate 91 in Guilford — and determined that, while there are no concerns with the safety of the bridges, the practices used by J.A. McDonald will affect the longevity of the structures.
According to the state agency, the expected life spans of the bridges range from 75 to 100 years, but the practices used to build the bridges could shave off 20 to 25 years.
Eric Boyden, president of J.A. McDonald, said the bridges were built while the company was under different ownership, but also touted the company’s long history in Vermont.
“Since receiving notice a few months ago from the Vermont Agency of Transportation regarding its examination of a few bridges built by J.A. McDonald in 2008-10, when the company was under different ownership, J.A. McDonald has cooperated with AOT,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.
In 2013, Boyden purchased the company from John McDonald.
“J.A. McDonald is a small Vermont company with a long history of quality construction work for the state of Vermont and other clients. We have pledged transparency and our assistance to the state, and will work with AOT to address any issues discovered,” Boyden said. “We are cooperating with the state, and hope that the interruption in the longstanding relationship with AOT is brief.”
The transportation agency has notified the company that it intends to pursue legal action under state laws that prohibit “fraudulent activities and false claims.”
“The investigation is still going on, both in terms of the investigations of the bridges and the attorney general’s investigation,” said Wayne Symonds, chief engineer for the state highway division.
The Waterbury project
In April, J.A. McDonald broke ground on a two-year, $21 million overhaul of 1 mile of Waterbury’s Main Street.
The federal government will cover 95 percent of the cost, or about $20 million, while the state of Vermont will pay 3 percent, $630,000, and the town will pay $420,000.
The project involves digging up the street and replacing aging water and sewer lines, some of which are 100 years old. While the street is opened up, workers will bury the utility lines now strung along poles that line the street.
Other work includes new sidewalks, tree replacement, landscaping, informational kiosks, wayfinding signs, hanging flower baskets, flags and banners.
The project runs along Main Street from the railroad bridge to the north to Demeritt Place to the south.
Previously, J.A. McDonald handled the $3.9 million construction of the roundabout at Routes 2 and 100.
Barb Farr, Waterbury’s community transportation liaison, said the bridge work in southern Vermont is different from the work being performed in Waterbury.
“The Friday announcement had to do with bridge construction and not water and sewer infrastructure,” Farr wrote in an email. “The town and our community have embraced McDonald as a contractor and their team. We have no reason to doubt their ability to complete the project on Main Street in Waterbury as designed. We do not anticipate that work on the Waterbury project will be impacted.”
A watchful eye
Currently, J.A. McDonald has state contracts for two projects — Main Street in Waterbury and Route 2 in Cabot. State officials say the two projects were awarded before the allegations against J.A. McDonald had been confirmed.
According to the agency, it would be costly to halt the work. Instead, the agency has what Symonds called a “robust” six-person team of inspectors on the Main Street project.
“If the contractor is doing anything, we have an inspector there at all times,” Symonds said.
William Shepeluk, Waterbury’s municipal manager, said the town was aware of the allegations against J.A. McDonald before the company received the Main Street reconstruction contract.
“They have been an excellent contractor on this project. There have been no issues on this job that we are aware of,” Shepeluk said. “Clearly, we’re disappointed with VTrans’ findings. What this means going forward, we’re not sure yet. Our expectation is that they (J.A. McDonald) will complete their contracted obligations.
“We have no information about the state’s allegations, or whether they (J.A. McDonald) are acquiescing to them. That is between J.A. McDonald and the state,” Shepeluk said.