The Dotted Line: Avoiding common construction disputes on Key Bridge rebuild

This feature is a part of “The Dotted Line” series, which takes an in-depth look at the complex legal landscape of the construction industry. To view the entire series, click here.

Ever since the cargo ship Dali plowed into Maryland’s Key Bridge on March 26 and triggered its collapse, one of the biggest questions in construction has been how much will it cost to rebuild, and who will actually build it. 

Contractors got closer to knowing the answers to the first question May 7, when the Maryland Transportation Authority held an informational session for the project, which drew more than 1,700 registrants. Officials said that costs are now estimated between $1.7 billion and $1.9 billion. 

The agency also revealed that the project will employ a two-phase, progressive design-build contracting process with single-step procurement. Under that approach, a project owner works with the contractor and engineer to come up with a general design concept and construction method before determining the actual price. 

For the Key Bridge, a contractor will be selected in Phase 1, with a guaranteed maximum price for the job negotiated during Phase 2, when at least 50% of design documents have been completed. 

But who will actually do the job is still anyone’s guess. While Italy’s WeBuild Group threw its hat into the ring in the weeks following the crisis with a proposal for a cable-stayed bridge — a design type that officials emphasized was their preference in the information session — who will actually get the job will depend on a number of factors, attorneys familiar with the process say. 

A headshot shows JAMS mediator and attorney Lisa Love.

Lisa Love

Courtesy of JAMS


“The most emphasis will be on qualifications and prior experience,” said Lisa Love, a New York City-based attorney and mediator for JAMS, formerly known as Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services, located in Irvine, California. “They’re really just trying to qualify to find the best contractor who they can work with to develop the project, including your experience building long bridges and working with federal, state and local government agencies.”

Fast turnaround

The timeline on the project is moving extremely fast. MDTA said it would issue a request for proposals by the end of May, with a due date for submissions just three to four weeks beyond that. It expects to award the contract in July. 

In addition to picking a prime contractor for the job, the agency will also award a $75 million contract for a general engineering consultant and an aggregated, $60 million award for three construction management and inspection contractors, according to an in-depth blog Love wrote about the Key Bridge bidding process.  

A history of major disputes

Although participating in the build will surely cast worldwide attention on the contractors involved, it will also mean those same contractors will likely face disputes in the process at some point. 

“In construction projects, disputes are almost inevitable due to the complexity and ambitious goals,” Love wrote. “Conflicts can arise from disagreements over contract terms, changes in scope, unforeseen conditions, delays, schedules, budgets, design specifications and other unexpected obstacles that can threaten the success of a project.”

For example, in New York, the $4 billion, 3-mile Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge over the Hudson River resulted in a $961 million lawsuit. 

Tappan Zee Constructors, a design-build team that included Fluor, American Bridge, Traylor Bros. and Granite Construction, sued the New York State Thruway Authority in 2021, three years after the bridge opened, for extra costs associated with bad weather, a crane collapse and alleged interference from another design-build team. Indeed, as recently as the fourth quarter of 2023, Granite took a $19 million hit to gross profit on the project and confirmed this month that claims between the JV and NYSTA remain open.

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