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Originally published Monday, May 13, 2013 at 8:51 PM

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Outside study of 3 DOT megaprojects may hit $475,000

The price tag could reach $475,000 to have a former state Department of Transportation administrator and another expert study how managers tackle the Highway 520 bridge, Highway 99 tunnel and I-5 Columbia River Crossing.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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The price tag could reach $475,000 to have a former state Department of Transportation (DOT) administrator and another expert study how managers tackle the Highway 520 bridge, Highway 99 tunnel and I-5 Columbia River Crossing.

Ron Paananen used to head both the 520 and 99 projects, and now works in the private sector for CH2M Hill, managing a waterfront development project in the nation’s capital.

He will be paid up to $325,000 to work as many as 1,000 hours for Washington state, said a work order released this week through a Seattle Times public-records request. John Njord, former executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, will be paid up to $150,000.

The megaproject study is a state reaction to news this winter that taxpayers will spend $100 million or more to redesign and retrofit new 520-bridge pontoons, which cracked during casting at Grays Harbor last year. The state made design mistakes that are blamed largely on poor communication within the DOT engineering corps.

Paananen’s hiring in March drew attention from news media and criticism by Republican politicians because he will be scrutinizing his ex-colleagues and perhaps his own legacy.

So state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson added Njord, of Utah-based Tom Warne & Associates, who described his role Monday as “to provide an outsider’s view; I don’t have a history with WashDOT.”

The scope of the work is broad and esoteric. For example, to “review the current process for key project decisions and how those decisions are documented to ensure the best accountability and project-delivery practices for contract development, project delivery methods, requests for proposal, contract awards, design review, risk management/insurance/bonding/indemnity, and change order processes.”

Paananen said Monday some of the money will pay for a technical writer and clerical help. He has begun interviewing staff in the state — not just to study the three megaprojects, but also the I-405 Corridor Program, which he considers an example of successful contracting.

Asked about the review’s cost, spokesman Lars Erickson said, “When you’re taking a look at three projects that take you close to a $10 billion-plus range, $500,000 to make sure your processes are in order, to do the right things, is a pretty smart investment.”

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said the study’s cost is worthwhile if it saves many millions, but he’s skeptical Paananen is right for the job.

“I’d have to see what he comes up with as far as changes and efficiencies,” said the ranking GOP House member.

Asked about his impartiality, Paananen said he’s been away two years, which helps him be independent.

Paananen said he left the 520 project to focus entirely on the Highway 99 tunnel by early 2009 — before the state made the decision that August to design pontoons in-house, instead of farming that job (and its cost risks) out to contractors. Paananen said that while he led the 520 planning, that decision departed from his recommendation.

In April, the DOT fired Jugesh Kapur, the state bridge and structures engineer, and demoted Patrick Clarke, the Floating Bridge & Special Structures Design manager, for failure to prevent lapses in communication and design that led to cracks in the first batch of pontoons, according to just-released documents. In a written rebuttal, Kapur said, he issued a number of warnings but was ignored.

Regardless, Paananen said, the review won’t dwell on the pontoon-crack episode, because he said that’s already been thoroughly explored.

Instead, he’ll be analyzing DOT strategy for all three megaprojects. “We’re going to look at how some of the decisions are made and documented,” he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom

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