With a $1 million contract at stake, the road gang at HNTB leaves nothing to chance.

Strangler Strikes Again 

With a $1 million contract at stake, the road gang at HNTB leaves nothing to chance.

Shooting dirty pool, one of Kansas City's best-known companies has landed a big contract to fix a mistake of its own making.

The engineering giant HNTB is in line to receive $1 million to study the feasibility of putting a deck over Interstate 670, the southern band of freeway ribbon around downtown. Like the loop itself, the contract takes HNTB full circle. Decades ago, HNTB worked closely with city and state officials to design the city's urban freeway system.

It's not a job to be proud of.

An ugly and dysfunctional relic, the loop is one of the city's great blunders. The racetrack-shaped freeway carved chasms between downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. And the ropes of interstate don't function all that well as traffic movers, either. Tight turns and frequent entry and exit points put white in drivers' knuckles.

Now, we learn, HNTB will get paid for a chance to undo some of its sins. A team of city and state officials has chosen HNTB to study ideas for replacing the aging bridges over I-670 with something more pleasing. Imagine Truman Road as a tree-lined boulevard, camouflaging a hideous trench of exhaust.

Three years ago, I sat in a conference room in the company's Quality Hill headquarters, where HNTB officials presented city and business leaders with ideas for making downtown more inviting. Company architect Todd Achelpohl showed a sketch of what an I-670 deck might look like. Dignitaries drooled ("The Concrete Bungle," January 27, 2005).

The city paid HNTB $100,000 for that analysis. It was only the beginning.

With the help of Sen. Kit Bond and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, city officials in 2005 secured $1,089,000 in federal highway money to study ways to improve the space above I-670. Something has to be done, after all. The bridges linking downtown with the Crossroads won't last another 15 years.

The city invited engineering companies to submit their qualifications to perform the feasibility study. A selection team — Councilman Terry Riley, various city department heads and a Missouri Department of Transportation official — narrowed a field of seven applicants to four: BNIM, HDR, Crawford Architects and HNTB.

One of the four, it turns out, really wanted to win.

The City Council approves million-dollar contracts all the time. But as Bob Langenkamp, No. 2 in the city's Planning and Development Department, was forced to explain last week, this contract-selection process took a weird turn. Appearing before the city's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Langenkamp divulged that the four finalists had been allowed to inspect one another's qualifications before they came in for interviews.

Under the often stern questioning of Councilman Russ Johnson, Langenkamp said "different firms" had raised questions about the other teams and their applications. He said the city's legal department determined that the applications (which didn't contain bid proposals) were not confidential documents. So all four contenders were invited to City Hall for a look at their competitors' paperwork.

Langenkamp didn't indicate which company had made the initial request for information about its competitors. After the meeting adjourned, I asked Langenkamp for the name. He declined to give it up.

Well, I can tell you it was HNTB.

HNTB's curiosity appears to have breached professional etiquette. E-mails I've seen indicate that one competitor for the job was horrified to learn that HNTB's request had been made and honored.

Larry Frevert, HDR's public-works director, insisted that it was "highly inappropriate" for competitors to view one another's qualification packages, according to an e-mail he apparently sent to co-workers. Frevert even refused the invitation to look at the other applications, according to the e-mails. (Frevert did not respond to my request for comment.)

Councilman Johnson sides with Frevert. While pulling the story out of Langenkamp, Johnson complained that city staff had changed the rules of the game. "I think it was improper, unethical and unfair," Johnson told me later.

Under Johnson's interrogation, Langenkamp said he couldn't remember a time when a prospective city contractor asked to see his competitors' applications. But he also made it sound as though the city was compelled by open-records laws to make the information available.

City Attorney Galen Beaufort told me something different, however. In an e-mail on November 1, Beaufort said responses to requests for qualifications "can be closed" until the city executes a contract.

Whoa. Can be? That's not the story Langenkamp told. He had made it sound as though the city had to open the documents because of the gosh-darned Sunshine Law.

So what gives? City officials aren't saying. I forwarded Beaufort's e-mail, with a request for explanation, to Langenkamp and City Manager Wayne Cauthen. They haven't responded.

Left to my own devices, I've come up with a theory.

Langenkamp is going out of his way to make HNTB's document request sound innocent.

When a reporter asked him if the company he wouldn't name had made a formal request, Langenkamp suggested that the whole matter was just a casual thing. "They just called us and contacted me, and we were talking about who were the members of the other teams. It's easier just to come in and look at them. So that was when we checked and found out, yeah, we have to let them come in."

But according to Beaufort, the city didn't have to let them come in.

I'm betting that HNTB got a glimpse of the other proposals before the other teams did. Only after another finalist got wind of it and complained, I think, was the decision made to open the documents to all the contestants.

Despite Johnson's complaints, the council committee approved HNTB's contract. It goes before the full council on November 8. (HNTB officials have not responded to my request for comment.)

It's bad enough that HNTB is in line to get paid to correct a mistake as colossal as the rock collar around downtown's neck. Someone, I suppose, could find inspiration in HNTB's ability to profit from its mistakes. You know, lemonade from lemons.

But asking for the competition's playbook in order to get a leg up in securing a $1 million contract? That's just weak.

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