No fines for roadwork continuing through cold season

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Traffic heading east on I-696 with construction east of 11 Mile in Warren last week.

Road contractors will not be hit with fines for construction work expected to linger into the height of winter as result of a three-week work stoppage earlier this year.

The Snyder administration hinted at the possibility of fines in September if contractors were not able to complete projects on time.

But Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Cranson confirmed to The Detroit News that “there are no fines” being issued as result of the extended construction season following the labor dispute between the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association and Operating Engineers Local 324. 

Cranson said the state doesn't have a mechanism to impose fines on contractors but can still assess liquidated damages.

“Some contracts call for liquidated damages to be assessed, but those are subject to negotiations and often not settled until well after projects are completed,” he said.

Cranson said liquidated damages are an amount of money that contracting parties agree on as the amount of damages one of them can recover if the party breaches the contract.

“Usually they apply to some specific type of breach of the contract, not any breach of any promise anywhere in the contract,” he said.

MoreMDOT could reopen I-696, I-75 next month

MITA locked out the engineers after multiple failed attempts to bargain a new contract. A prior, five-year deal expired in June. The construction standoff prompted the shutdown or partial halt of 89 MDOT projects and 75 local projects.

MDOT's contracts do allow for the state to grant extensions because of labor disputes, similar to provisions for acts of God.

The rift between MITA and the engineers was temporarily mended by Gov. Rick Snyder who helped broker a short-term agreement through the end of the 2018 construction season. The union and contractors association will use professional mediators throughout the winter to help negotiate a new contract, according to Snyder. 

The spring season typically starts in April or May, meaning the union and contractors association will have several months to negotiate a long-term deal after crews complete work without a contract.

Snyder's office said Tuesday that the governor is deferring to MDOT on penalties for the extended construction season. 

“Fines and penalties for construction projects would have all been handled by MDOT, which is the most appropriate way to deal with these due to contract provisions,” said Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder. “The governor did not ask for anything additional beyond what the contracts specify.”

Asked if Snyder is pleased with the progress on the roads, Adler responded: “It is good that we have a lighter winter this year, allowing contractors to continue working late into December so they can catch up on a delay that should never have happened.”

As far as contractors not being fined by MDOT, MITA  Vice President Mike Nystrom said that's because they’re getting the job done by "working overtime on these projects.”  

“They’re getting the roads open to traffic like they said they would,” he said. “There wasn’t even an issue about that from the get-go. And some parts of the projects may be getting completed later, but they’re still open to traffic.”

MITA represents hundreds of companies who contract to build state roads and bridges, water and sewer systems and utilities.

Among the greatest concerns for Metro Detroit motorists are delays along the two largest construction area projects.

MDOT told The Detroit News on Monday that Interstate 696 in Macomb County between I-94 and I-75 could reopen for westbound traffic by early January if the weather holds up. And I-75 between Clark and Springwells, north of the Rouge River bridge, could be open by mid-January.

Dan McKernan, the spokesman for Operating Engineers Local 324, noted road workers have put in more hours and weekends than in previous years "to get things done" following the work stoppage.

“It never was our intent to be going this late into the season,” he said. “Our members take immense pride, and they worked very hard. That is part of why when things happened in September, it was so upsetting.”