Bids rejected for Reading treatment plant

Time is running short for the Pennsylvania town to meet its federal mandate after a second failed attempt to tender the project.

The city of Reading has cancelled an auction to redevelop the Fritz Island Wastewater Treatment Plant for the second time after the lowest bid came in $34 million over budget. 

City managing director Carole Snyder said in a statement that all bids from the second round should be rejected on the grounds of cost. The lowest bid received by city consultants, who estimate that the project should cost $109 million, totalled $143 million. 

The four contracts cover the general, electrical, HVAC and plumbing chapters of the facility's construction. Only one contractor bid on the construction portion of the contract, with that submission outlining a plan that would cost $126.2 million, 33 percent higher than projected costs. 

The modern iteration of the Fritz Island plant was constructed in 1959 on the site of a historic treatment plant developed in the late 1800s. It is designed to treat 28.5 million gallons per day. During upgrading, tender documents specify that the plant's current operational capacity must not be affected. 

The Reading city government originally concocted a plan in 2010 to redevelop the plant and drill an 8,700-foot tunnel for roughly $400 million. The following year, they introduced a scaled-back plan to resolve pipe problems and redevelop the plant for $217 million. 

Whereas in the first two rounds of bidding, outgoing Mayor Vaughn Spencer required that bidders agree to union-favouring project labour agreements (PLAs) – a stipulation which local news source The Reading Eagle said has been blamed for heightened cost estimates – he made a retreat on this point for the third round.  

Snyder said the easing of PLA requirements should help to attract more bidders and lower projected cost schemes. The city remains undecided, however, as to whether the new bid specifications will allow for an optional PLA. 

The city council has vowed not to approve any contract that doesn't arise out of the open bidding process. But time is running short for the city to meet its US Justice Department-mandated federal consent decree to open the doors on the rebuilt plant by February 2018 – a deadline that has already been extended from its original 2012 target – especially considering that earlier plans called for one year of design work and a 2.5-year construction period. 

The project is being federally funded through Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) financial assistance dollars. 

The pressure is on for incoming Mayor Wally Scott to spur his administration into bringing the tendering process to a close and getting construction underway.