A resolute Maj. Gen. George Thomas on horseback greets gridlocked commuters as they enter the crossing of Massachusetts Avenue, Vermont Avenue, M Street, and 14th Street NW. The iron statue that sits in the middle of Thomas Circle commemorates the Civil War soldier’s extraordinary efforts to rally Union troops after the Confederate breakthrough at Chattanooga.
A number of smaller, more contemporary monuments lie in front of the man known as “the Rock of Chickamauga”: eight ominous steel grates, a 10-by-8 rectangular hole filled with assorted trash, and a tepee-sized mound of dirt. The secondary artifacts all memorialize the District government’s ineptitude and lack of oversight.
Last year, the District awarded Southern Maryland Restoration Inc.(SMR) a $2.4 million contract to repair the deteriorating Massachusetts Avenue underpass and replace its mechanical and electrical equipment. The work was supposed to have been completed by the end of this summer. Yet as cold weather approaches, no workers are in evidencejust a lot of barrels, machinery, and open manholes. More importantly, just half of the tunnel is currently in use. On a weekday afternoon rush hour, three traffic lanes each way on the major commuting thoroughfare merge into only one.
The other half of the underpass is a real-life version of the Atari game Pitfall, littered with obstacles and unfinished work. Not that it’s totally unusable. “It’s my own personal bike lane,” says one messenger as he whizzes past car commuters and shoots down the two lanes closed off to traffic. “Suckers.”
It’s been that way since the beginning of August. The D.C. Contract Appeals Board hit the pause button on the underpass rehab project after it ruled that SMR had falsified documents to win the bid, as well as finding that the District government had violated procurement regulations in awarding the job to SMR.
Back in 1997, SMR beat out a handful of other companies for the underpass project by bidding 22 percent below the estimated completion price. Along with its winning bid, SMR submitted a required Certificate of Eligibility, which stated that the company was not currently debarred from receiving federal or District contracts and had not been debarred or declared ineligible by agencies in those jurisdictions in the past three years.
If District officials had bothered to check the validity of the certificate, as dictated by D.C. procurement law, they would have found out that SMR had flat-out lied, according to the board.
“…SMR concealed and materially misrepresented its responsibility and eligibility to enter into those contracts,” the Contract Appeals Board wrote in its ruling. “DPW’s own procurement violationsthe agency’s failure to execute proper determinations and findings of responsibilitydo not lessen the gravity of SMR’s intentional misconduct.”
In 1996, the Capitol Heights company pleaded guilty to three counts of fraud for overcharging the U.S. government $463,248 while completing a contract to remove asbestos from the State Department building. The company had falsely certified that it paid its employees an asbestos-worker wage when it was raking in profits by paying those workers substantially less. After entering into a plea agreement, the State Department debarred SMR from receiving contracts for one year. SMR officials failed to return phone calls for this article.
The Contract Appeals Board also found that SMR had submitted false documents for four other winning contracts with the District, as well as at least 16 other solicitations. Until the District clears up the contracting fiasco, work at Thomas Circle, and some of the other projects, remains at a standstill.
The deserted underpass work site is an eyesore, but there are more serious consequences as well. Because of the sudden squeeze on traffic, merging cars sometimes conflict when entering the tunnel.
“More than anything, we worry about accidents,” says Stephen H. Snell, who lives right around the corner on Vermont Avenue. “I’ve heard estimates of three accidents a day at this intersection….This is a case of government screwing up, and now we have to deal with the mess.”
Metropolitan Police Department Sgt. Peter Hunt reports that officers in his service area responded to 13 accidents at the corner of 13th Street and Massachusetts Avenue in August. Last month, the number dropped to three at 13th and Massachusetts, but five occurred at the opposite end of the tunnel, at 15th and Massachusetts.
“We’re kind of stuck right now,” says John Flemming, a Department of Public Works area engineer in street construction. Flemming says that the majority of the work left is electrical and that the District is currently negotiating with an electrical subcontractor to complete the work.
“I like to think we could complete the work in two months, but you never know,” says Flemming.CP