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Golden Gate Bridge suicide net could be delayed by lawsuit

Jun 18, 2023Jun 18, 2023

A construction worker stands on scaffolding while working to install large struts used as part of a planned suicide net sit underneath the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Calif. A lawsuit brought by a pair of contractors working on the net over pay could delay their completion and add to the final cost.

A long-anticipated Golden Gate Bridge suicide barrier, intended to catch jumpers in a web of marine-grade steel, is now mired in a lawsuit that could more than double its cost as construction falls further behind schedule.

The contractors building the net sued the Bridge Highway and Transportation District in San Francisco Superior Court, claiming that design flaws, worker safety requirements and "extensive" deterioration of the span have raised the project cost from $142 million to $392 million. These complications also delayed completion of the project by at least five years, the suit said, pushing the anticipated date from 2021 to 2026.

At its heart, the lawsuit claims the district is not paying the contractors — Shimmick Construction Co. and its partner, Danny's Construction Co. — what they are owed, a charge that bridge officials vehemently dispute.

"Rather than acknowledge its own mistakes, the district seeks to hold (the contractors) hostage and have it complete the work with no adjustment in price," attorneys for Shimmick and Danny's said in their complaint. The companies are seeking $195 million along with attorney fees and interest, a burden that could fall on taxpayers, or prompt the district to raise tolls for motorists crossing the bridge if the companies prevail.

District General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Denis Mulligan pushed back against the contractors’ accusations, arguing that the companies are trying to enrich themselves with taxpayer money. He noted, further, that the companies had agreed to fix damaged segments of the bridge as part of their deal. The rust and corrosion shown in photographs included with the lawsuit — mostly of beams that engineers use to access parts of the bridge for inspections — amount to "less than half" of what the companies agreed to repair, Mulligan said.

The contractors’ lawyers counter in the suit that none of the deterioration was obvious when they did walk-through inspections before bidding on the contract. A spokesperson for the plaintiffs maintained, in a statement, that "any suggestion that the extent of the deterioration was disclosed is absolutely false and unsupported by the factual record."

None of the damage cited in the lawsuit affects the structural integrity of the roadway.

"They’re taking pictures, I think trying to embarrass or bully us into giving up money," Mulligan surmised, arguing that the district has always honored the terms of its contracts.

"If we have changes, we pay for the changes," he said. "But we don't give away money. We protect the taxpayers."

He underscored that this lawsuit marks the first time a contractor has sued the bridge district in at least 20 years.

Officials at the Golden Gate Bridge say the companies would have likely sued the district anyway. Mulligan said he believes Shimmick and Danny's underbid the job — the second-lowest bid was $30 million higher — but at that time, in 2016, the district was required by law to accept the least expensive proposal.

"Shimmick was given the opportunity to walk away from their bid," Mulligan recalled. "Their then-CEO stood up in our boardroom and said, ‘No, no, no, we’ll take this. We’ll build it for that amount.’ Then he sold the company (to infrastructure consulting firm AECOM) six months later."

Last year a new investor, Oroco, bought the company.

As the project becomes more contentious, installation of the nets is inching along, and all parties expect the bulk of the work to be done this year, save for a set of rolling scaffolds used for maintenance, which the contractors have not started building.

As of Tuesday the net stretched between the two towers of the span and almost from the south tower to the shore, Mulligan said, gazing at the steel webbing and ripe orange struts from his office window. So far, it appears to be working, he said — nobody has tried to jump from the netted portions.

Still, he acknowledged that dozens of lives could have been saved, had the companies stuck with their original 2021 timeline.

Reach Rachel Swan: [email protected]