Miami-Dade, Fla. County Set to Finish Troubled Terminal

With anticipated costs spiraling toward $2 billion -- nearly double the original budget -- county officials Thursday took steps to take control of building the problem-plagued North Terminal at Miami International Airport, replacing American Airlines at the project's helm.

After months of negotiations and sometimes tense relations, the airline agreed to pay $105 million and cede control of the project, the largest piece of a massive airport expansion project that has been beset by cost overruns and delays.

''This thing is bigger than Godzilla,'' said Miami-Dade Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, part of the Transportation Committee that voted in favor of a county takeover Thursday. The deal still must be approved by the full County Commission next month.

''We've got to take this thing back,'' said Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, the committee's chairman. In 1995, when the ambitious construction project was approved, officials agreed to let American manage the work -- assuming that the private company could do the job more quickly and cheaply.

Now, though, costs for the North Terminal project -- which when completed will stretch longer than a mile and occupy more than three million square feet of space at MIA -- may balloon to an estimated $1.945 billion, said County Manager George Burgess. That's more than $348 million over the last official estimate. Commissioners would have to approve spending the new amounts.

Burgess also said the North Terminal realistically won't be completed until 2009 -- two years beyond the previous deadline.

The soaring price tag has been blamed, in part, on post-Sept. 11 security requirements, higher prices for construction materials, the correction of design flaws and other costs associated with orchestrating a massive project within the confines of a working airport.

But in a memo to commissioners outlining the plan, Burgess also cited ''insufficient project management.''

Tensions surrounding the North Terminal project helped lead to last year's ouster of former county Aviation Director Angela Gittens, who had clashed with American over the project.

Burgess said blame could easily be shared by all parties. ''If anyone says they were immune from error, they are lying to us and they're lying to you,'' Burgess said.

BREAKING POINT

Feuding between Gittens and American Airlines reached a breaking point last fall. The county manager stripped Gittens of oversight of the expansion -- including the North Terminal -- on the same day American said it wanted to pull out of managing the project.

Burgess handed the responsibility to Assistant County Manager Carlos Bonzon. A few weeks later, in November, Gittens resigned under pressure.

Bonzon has been serving as interim aviation director while the county searches for a permanent replacement. A front-runner for the job is state Transportation Secretary Jose Abreu. Burgess is expected to announce his choice today.

American Airlines, the largest carrier at MIA and one of the county's largest employers, issued a statement Thursday, saying it was pleased ''to reach an agreement that we believe is in the best interest of Miami-Dade County, the airport, the North Terminal project and American Airlines. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Miami-Dade County for completion of the North Terminal project and ongoing growth at MIA.''

Gittens declined to comment.

The county would take over a project beset with other troubles, including claims filed by a slew of contractors and subcontractors who say they haven't been paid on time because of construction delays and other problems.

The claims submitted through Turner Austin, the project's construction manager, to American Airlines exceed $151 million, according to the county. Some of the claims are in litigation, and more lawsuits are expected.

Bonzon said the county will do what it can to determine which claims are credible -- and how any payments should be divided.

''Some of these may not even have merit. Others may not be 100 percent the county's fault, or 100 percent American's,'' he said.

County commissioners also are being asked to approve a $12 million deal with Alpha Construction and Engineering as a consultant to evaluate the morass of claims and help assign responsibility.

The terminal construction is being funded through long-term county bonds that are paid for with revenue from the airport.

American's $105 million contribution will go toward the costs of settling outstanding claims and completing construction on the terminal. The payments will be stretched over 10 years. The county will issue bonds to pay the costs of the terminal and use American's installments to pay down the debt.

County officials believe that stepping in is the only way to prevent further problems at the North Terminal. Bonzon points to another airport project, the county-run South Terminal, as evidence. That project is coming in on time and under budget. The $850 million terminal is expected to be completed by March.

''All you have to do is look at the history,'' Bonzon said of the North Terminal project. ''This is a kitchen in need of a new chef.''

NEW MANAGEMENT

The County Commission will also have to decide whether to seek bids for a new construction management company -- which may create further controversy.

American recently sought bids for a company to run the remaining elements of the project. Parsons Transportation Group and Odebrecht Construction, a joint venture hired by the county to build the South Terminal, was the sole bidder.

Burgess recommended keeping the Parsons/Odebrecht contract, which he said was negotiated with heavy input from the county. Seeking bids over again, he said, would only add to delays.

''It will take time, and time is money,'' he said.

But Turner Austin, the current construction manager, has already voiced objections. Part of the legal team representing Turner Austin is Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, an attorney and former county commissioner, who addressed commissioners Thursday.

The terms of the contract had significantly changed since American advertised the bid, he said, meaning his client should get another shot at competing for the deal.

Considering the complexities, Bonzon said, the county ''should have had control of this in 1995'' -- a sentiment echoed by commissioners.

''This is a good lesson for the commission,'' Commissioner Dennis Moss said. ''It's a costly one, unfortunately.''

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