Taking Over Terminal Project Has Pitfalls, County is Warned

Miami-Dade County is assuming control of the beleaguered North Terminal project at Miami International Airport -- a takeover plan that the county's inspector general's office warns still needs to be tweaked to avoid past pitfalls.

The North Terminal project, with a ballooning price tag expected to reach nearly $2 billion, ''is in severe crisis,'' wrote Inspector General Chris Mazzella in a report reviewing the construction management contract with Parsons Transportation Group and Odebrecht Construction. The project ''requires extraordinary measures if it is to be salvaged,'' wrote Mazzella in the report, which examined the new contract with Parsons/Odebrecht at the County Commission's request.

The inspector general's office concluded the contract offered sufficient ''chokeholds'' to keep the project in check -- most notably, the ability to fire the construction management company, an option not available to the county when American Airlines was at the helm.

Mazzella does question whether the county has enough staff assigned to oversee the project and notes the lack of a definite timetable for completing construction.

''I certainly support what the county manager has done,'' Mazzella told commissioners Tuesday, even though he said he is ''not totally and fully convinced the county itself is ready and in a postion to administer the contract. This is going to be one huge undertaking.''

County commissioners approved a series of measures Tuesday related to the exit of American Airlines as the primary pilot of a long overdue, vastly overbudget terminal construction project.

The commission voted in favor of deals that would require American to pay $104 million over 10 years, hire an outside consultant company to slog through $150 million in backlogged claims from contractors and hand the remainder of the construction management to a new firm.

A large share of the project's success -- or failure -- will fall on newly appointed Aviation Director Jose Abreu, who will assume his post next month.

County Manager George Burgess said he has discussed the changes with Abreu, and said the new aviation head's main concern with the North Terminal project was who, exactly, would be in charge.

''One comment was that he wanted sufficient construction oversight,'' Burgess said.

A Decade Later

The terminal is expected to be completed in 2009 -- more than a decade after the project was approved.

In 1995, county officials agreed to let American manage construction of the project -- which, when completed, will stretch longer than a mile and occupy more than three million square feet of space. They assumed that a private company could do the job quicker and cheaper. The final costs may reach $1.945 billion, county officials estimate -- nearly double the original price.

Even with a new boss leading the project, one sticky issue remains: paying the slew of subcontractors who account for the $150 million in unpaid claims submitted through the current construction manager, Turner Austin.

Carlos Bonzon, who has served as interim aviation director, said the contract with Alpha Construction will help the county cut through the morass of claims. ''We'll try to settle them as expeditiously as possible,'' he said.

In recent weeks, commissioners have expressed their frustration with the project. Tuesday was no exception.

''You say this so simple, man,'' Commissioner Dorrin Rolle told Bonzon. ''But if this had been policed, we wouldn't have so many small businesses out of work.''

Laying Blame

The meeting also offered a glimpse at future battles over who should assume the financial fallout for mistakes and missteps at the North Terminal.

Executives and attorneys for Turner Austin had approached the commission at previous meetings, taking issue with the Parsons/Odebrecht contract and saying the company had been discouraged from bidding and should get another shot at the deal.

Thomas C. Leppert, chairman and chief executive officer of Turner, told The Herald last week that the issue was now moot, saying his corporation ''didn't want to be in a position of fighting for something where we're not wanted.''

But that doesn't mean Turner Austin agrees with the county's account of who is to blame, and the company disputes that its contract required it to serve as anything other than a middle agent -- one not required to pay contractors directly.

Burgess disagrees.

''That's their opinion,'' he said earlier in the week.

Sitting before the commission, Burgess warned that the county was prepared to go after parties he considered responsible with ''all the weapons in our arsenal.''