Aug. 26—Portland's redesign of Congress Square ran into another problem Friday with a construction incident that forced the closure of part of High Street, at the same time as the city and Gordon Contracting are in the midst of a dispute about delays and progress on the project.
The city announced the street closure between Congress and Spring streets, which is expected to last several days, in a traffic alert Friday afternoon, saying it was due to an "unforeseen incident related to construction work in Congress Square."
At 9 p.m. Friday, High Street remained open, and the city's announcement did not specify exactly when the street would be closed.
It is the latest obstacle for the Congress Square redesign, a $7.2 million upgrade to one of the city's busiest intersections that includes changes to traffic flow, improved sidewalks and infrastructure, expansion of the plaza outside the Portland Museum of Art and a redesign and public art installation in Congress Square Park.
The first phase of the project, a $2.6 million redesign of the intersection and upgrades to sidewalks and traffic flow, started this spring but ran into a problem with the need to make alterations to underground utility vaults, which set the project back several weeks.
City officials this week said that although that problem was resolved in mid-July, the contractor, Gordon Contracting, has not returned to complete their work other than having a representative oversee the site and work by sub-contractors this week.
"From what I read in the newspaper, Gordon plans to be back there next week," said acting Director of Public Works Mike Murray in an interview Thursday.
Murray said the city wants workers to return as soon as possible. Last week, the city told Gordon it is considering declaring a contractor default on the project.
"Due to (the) contractor's past and ongoing refusal to continue work on the project as required by the contract, its request for substantial additional compensation and an unreasonable extension of time not justified under the provisions of the contract, the city is very concerned that the contractor will complete the project in a satisfactory and timely manner," reads the letter to Gordon dated Aug. 17.
The city also asked for a meeting with its bond company and Gordon to discuss the contractor's performance and wanted the meeting held "right away," though city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said Friday the meeting had not yet been held.
Gordon responded with a letter Wednesday saying there is no basis for declaring a default and asking the city to withdraw its meeting request. The letter includes an updated construction schedule calling for the first phase of the project to be completed by February, while the original timeline called for it to be done in November.
"Gordon contracting is committed to fulfilling its contract obligations and mitigating the delays experienced to date but cannot be expected to shoulder the costs of the delays, changes and differing site conditions, all of which were outside its control," the letter said. "Gordon Contracting is entitled to adjustments in the completion deadline and contract price on account of differing site conditions."
Asked about the delays Thursday, Mayor Kate Snyder said she was out of the office this week and directed a reporter to the city manager.
Interim City Manager Danielle West said Friday that staff in the Department of Public Works have been "working tirelessly to make sure that this project gets back on track so that we can get Free Street back open and lessen the impacts on businesses and traffic in the area."
"We know that there was and is plenty of work for the contractor to complete, and it is our hope that they will uphold their end of the contract by returning to the site as soon as possible so we can get the work finished as quickly as possible," West said in an email Friday afternoon, prior to the announcement about the High Street closure.
Earlier this week, Drew Straehle, project manager for the Congress Square project and chief operating officer of Gordon Contracting, told the Press Herald that delays have been caused by a number of unforeseen obstacles. For instance, he said, workers ran into ledge underneath the site, unknown prior to construction, that has made it difficult for subcontractors to complete wiring and foundation work for street lights.
There also was a delay to make alterations to underground utility "vaults" to enable them to handle the heavy loads of trucks and construction equipment.
From mid-July to late this month, Straehle said, delays were mostly due to the need to renegotiate terms with the city because of changes in the scope of work. That meant workers had to hold off starting new parts of the project, he said.
Straehle said Friday he has been at the site the last two days and that sub-contractors are doing sub-surface work that must be finished before his full crew can return. "As soon as that is complete our actual crew will return to do the surface work," Straehle said. "We can't work on that until the sub-surface work is done."
Brian Howard, president of Gordon Contracting, issued a statement Friday night saying the company is committed to completing the project. "Differing site conditions and delays are common in construction," Howard said, adding that the city "refuses to follow their own contract documents" defining site conditions and compensable delays.
"Twenty-two million of construction will be completed by our staff this season throughout the state of Maine for clients such as Maine DOT, the city of Calais and the state of Maine Bureau of General Services," Howard said. "The situation in Portland is abnormal and contentious, however, we remain committed to the successful completion of the intersection."
Murray said the two sides have been communicating about the issues and that the city wants work on the Free Street sub-phase done "as soon as possible" but "we need to have the contractor back on site and for them to give us a revised timeline."
"We maintain that during the time they left there was a substantial amount of work that could have been done at the site, which they declined to do," Murray said.
The delays on the project have led to frustration for some nearby businesses on Free Street. Mandy Lacourse, owner of Marcy's Diner, said this week her sales have been down about 30 percent from already-depressed COVID sales because of the construction.
"I'm down," Lacourse said, adding that summer is usually the busy season. "Our business is slow."
Ada Bonnevie, a server at the diner, said she is used to it being "crazy busy all summer, but this year it definitely hasn't been like that."
"People can't find us, and we definitely have a lot of customers come in and say things like, 'We thought it would be hard to get to you,' or 'We were excited to come here, but we had a hard time finding you,' " Bonnevie said. "Stuff like that. That confirms to us that it's definitely because of this construction, because normally it's such an easy intersection."
City officials said they understand the impact on businesses and are trying to speed up the project and ensure communication.
"This is one of the busiest downtown areas and it also has an impact on businesses," Grondin said. "From that perspective we've certainly been very concerned about the length of time it's been impacting people. Our engineering team and public works have been working to try and get this back on track as much as they can."
Consolidated Communications has mobilized crews to work around the clock to fix the issue that led to the closure of High Street Friday. Nicole Elton, a spokesperson, said the problem stems from a duct bank that was accidentally damaged, impacting both fiber and copper cables.
"Currently, a majority of fiber service has been restored," Elton said in an email Friday night. The copper cables, which provide phone and DSL services, will take up to a week to repair. Elton said there would be service interruptions for some customers, but could not estimate how many.
"We understand this is frustrating, and our crews are working around the clock to repair all services as quickly as possible," she said.
While repairs are taking place, all non-industrial and commercial traffic will be detoured from High Street onto Spring Street.
The city recommends industrial and commercial traffic use West Commercial Street to St. John Street and Commercial Street to Franklin Street to avoid the closure.