Amid pressures to move forward with a fast ferry proposed for the Juneau-Sitka route, the Alaska Department of Transportation correctly has called time out.
Bob Doll, Southeast regional director for the state agency, was succinct in explaining the decision to reject the only bid received and to start over from scratch: "Builders like to be held to a very loose standard, we like to hold them to a stringent standard."
Government agencies sometimes make the mistake of believing they must accept the low bid lest they incur the wrath of an impatient public or the legal challenges of a spurned low bidder. Most states protect themselves by creating bidding language that considers the "lowest and best" bid or a bid that is "responsive" to the requirements of the state.
At $35.99 million, the bid submitted by Nichols Brothers Boat Builders of Freeland, Wash., was the lowest and only bid received by the Alaska DOT. The bid was rejected last week as "nonresponsive" while state transportation officials considered trying to negotiate past the unspecified stumbling blocks.
Many of the details of the bid are confidential, but it appeared Nichols Brothers' sought to make a good faith effort at meeting the state's requirements, which would include a ferry that could accommodate a specified number of passengers and vehicles, operate at a specified speed, consume no more than a certain amount of fuel and be delivered on time.
But if it came up short, well, too bad. Taxpayers know all too well about cost overruns and "change orders" - changes to the specifications made during the building phase that push the cost beyond the contract price.
We should all remember construction of the last new ferry, the Kennicott. It left the state and the builder with a multi-million-dollar disagreement.
In a way, the state is sailing through uncharted waters. The proposed fast ferry is the first of its type to be built in the United States. The state DOT needs to be realistic and to assume some of the risk. We have no reason to believe that is not happening.
As disappointing as it may be not to have received a responsive bid, the state was right to take what it learned from the process so far and to develop a new solicitation. Better the right fast ferry than the lowest bid.