Yikes: Lowest Bidder No Longer the Federal Mandate for State DOT Engineering Contracts


In today’s must-read-as-always Political Scene, the ProJo’s Kathy Gregg reports that RIDOT spent $41.7 million in 2015 on outside consultants. RIDOT Director and former Laborers International official Peter Alviti was undoubtedly thrilled to point out that this was roughly $5 million lower than the prior year. (Sure, because they want that spending brought in-house and returned to unionized public employees. Not to mention that $5 million will be a drop in the budget in the budget of a department whose spending is about to explode from Governor Raimondo’s onerous, highly damaging, completely unnecessary tolls.)

Further in the article, however, Alviti points out that

“Federal law requires that engineering firms be hired based on most qualified, rather than low price or overhead rate,” Alviti said Friday, in an email. “It is much like selecting a physician for a complicated operation — seeking the one with the most expertise rather than the one with the lowest price.”

“Most expertise”? “Most qualified”? The main point here is that it is alarming and definitely bad for the taxpayer for government to move away from the standard of “lowest (qualified) bidder” when it comes to public contracts. But there is also the concern that “most qualified” would seem leave room for an unwelcome eye-of-the-beholder element rather than a more objective one. What constitutes “most qualified”? True industry standards? Or will federal officials incorporate irrelevant, feel-good, politically correct elements into their official definition of “qualified”, thereby moving away from both cost-effectiveness and, potentially, safety?

  • Brian C. Newberry

    Just wanted to point out that there is nothing “new” about this. This is the way it works all across the country and has for a very long time. Each state has its own way of awarding design contracts (architecture, engineering etc.) and there are very good reasons for not awarding such contracts to “lowest bidder” relating not just to quality control (do you want the cheapest engineer to do the design calculations for weight loads on a bridge?) but also to design elements and aesthetics. To take a hypothetical, if RI chose to replace the State House with a new building do we really want the architecture firm (and consequent design) being chosen under lowest bidder terms or do we want some control over what the project will look like? Because you cannot have both.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Same as above. As pilots used to say “Do you want to fly a plane built by the lowest bidder”.

      “Duct tape is like ‘The Force.’ It has a light side and a dark side, and it holds the universe together.”

    • Mike678

      Understood. Do you also acknowledge that this also opens the process to judgement–judgement that can be influenced by cronyism? What is the process / set of checks and balances in place to review these decisions?

      • Rhett Hardwick

        As anyone involved with it knows, “cronyism” runs right to the core of the process. Same with “minority set asides” and every other form of government contracting. I remember from grade school Civil War History hearing of the Union contracting for “wool blankets” and receiving blankets that were 50% cotton. My father could tell more modern stories of military “compliance officers”. Look into what happened to the Providence regulation that bidders on snow plowing contracts own a truck.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Hey Monique …

    Would YOU take a ride on a rocket built by the lowest bidder ??

    Ask the astronauts on the Space Shuttle CHALLENGER or COLUMBIA how that worked out for them



    • Mike678

      I would–as many did. Go big or go home.