Theres gold in them thar ramps.
There's gold in them thar ramps. SDOT

One thing is clear: The West Seattle Bridge is coming down. Maybe this year, maybe in five years, maybe in fifty. But bridges don’t last forever — especially this one — and SDOT isn’t waiting for the thing to crumble. They’ve just chosen a contractor to design its replacement, which could be a tunnel or a bridge or, who knows, a catapult.

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But about that company they’ve chosen: It’s over a hundred years old, it's called HNTB (at one point the letters stood for the company’s heads), and it’s one of those multi-headed conglomerations that somehow has its fingers in airports and toll booths and railways and tunnels. Unfortunately, it also has its fingers in a long history of billing scandals.

When it comes to the West Seattle Bridge, HNTB will study what a replacement should be — where it would be located, if it should be replaced by a tunnel, and how exactly it would be constructed. It might seem premature to start that work, since it’s possible that the existing bridge could simply be repaired; but “by bringing on a firm to design a replacement of the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge now, we’re ensuring that all of the pieces are in place to quickly pivot if it becomes clear that repairing the bridge is not advisable,” SDOT says.

In other words: If the city chooses to build a whole new replacement, for reasons related to engineering, politics, or some other factor that we can’t POSSIBLY speculate about, HNTB will be in the position of having already come up with a plan for what that super-expensive, super-lucrative project would be.

(Update: SDOT informs us the contract is anticipated to be between $50 to $150 million and requires that the firm be "available for at least a decade," depending on whether the bridge will be replaced with an estimated 2025/2026 opening, or repaired short-term with an eye to replacement "several years down the line.")

And HNTB certainly knows a thing or two about lucrative positioning. In 2019, the company settled with the federal government in an overbilling scandal related to a railway project (basically they billed for work at the highest allowed rate, rather than billing for what that work actually cost). They charged the state of Texas five times what other contractors were making in a wildfire project. The state of Wisconsin paid the company twice for work they only did once, in an incredibly bizarre financial arrangement that allowed contractors to bill for estimated expenses rather than actual expenses. And a 1993 contract with the Port of Seattle that started at under $1 million grew to $30 million in a strange no-competition arrangement.

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It's worth noting that when it comes to politics, HNTB does its biggest spending on Republicans, according to figures from FollowTheMoney.org. They gave about $55,000 to a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania in 2014; $43,000 to Mike Pence (!) in 2012; $35,000 to the odious Greg Abbott in Texas and $34,500 to the equally odious Rick Perry. Here in Washington, their best buddies include Jay Inslee ($2,000 this year alone), Marko Liias ($500 in 2018), and Dave Reichert ($2,000 in 2016).

Now obviously, companies of all shapes and sizes and compositions make billing errors from time to time; there’s always going to be disputes over contract details and rates; and corporations out-spending citizens on politics by many orders of magnitude is just a fact of life here in this terrible broken country. I’m certainly not saying HNTB is in any way unusual.

Just, you know, whoever’s keeping an eye on project budgets over at SDOT might want to keep an additional eye on this one.

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