Bay Bridge

$10 million Bay Bridge contract included book deal, video

State officials overseeing construction of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge agreed this year to pay a public relations company nearly $10 million for services the Brown administration says it knew nothing about, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct tours and to produce a video and commemorative book.

The administration said Wednesday that it has ordered the contract's cancellation, after the California Department of Transportation provided records of the contract to The Bee at the newspaper's request.

The public relations company, San Francisco-based Words Pictures Ideas LLC, had performed similar work for the state under a separate contract long before the most recent contract was awarded.

"When we found out about it, we cancelled it," said Jim Evans, a spokesman for the state Business, Transportation & Housing Agency, which oversees Caltrans. "A commemorative book and a documentary about the Bay Bridge is not a wise use of tollpayer resources."

In addition to typical public relations duties, including community outreach and interaction with the media, Words Pictures Ideas, doing business as MegaProject Studios, was expected to produce "a documentary video and book to highlight and document all events leading up to the opening celebrations," according to a contract document.

The contract was signed by Caltrans in August and approved by the state Department of General Services on Sept. 4.

Evans called the contract "excessive" and said it "wasn't properly vetted at Caltrans headquarters." He said the contract was approved by a district supervisor, Bijan Sartipi, and that the agency is preparing to issue a directive "clarifying that contracts of this magnitude may not be approved at the district level."

Evans said it is unclear what magnitude of contract will trigger a review but that it will be "significantly lower than this contract."

Caltrans officials said Sartipi was in meetings and unavailable Wednesday, and they referred questions to Evans.

The money involved is a tiny fraction of the $6.4 billion project, which is scheduled to open next year.

Dan McNichol, who calls himself an "award winning journalist" on his website, was referred to by Words Pictures Ideas as the "East Span Narrative Writer," at a proposed cost of $46,196 over the term of the contract.

The contract also included $500,000 for book printing.

McNichol, a former spokesman for the Big Dig infrastructure project in Boston, wrote a book about that project, among others.

In a previous Caltrans contract, in which Words Pictures Ideas was a subcontractor, the company billed the state for more than $114,000 in work it said McNichol did as a writer from March to August.

In its most recent project proposal, the company wrote, "Creating a holistic, all-encompassing narrative of the project's history, milestones, tribulations and monumental achievements is an essential component of capturing and preserving the seismic retrofit's legacy."

In the contract proposal, Words Pictures Ideas said it was familiar with the Bay Bridge project, with many employees having worked on it since 2005.

"Since then, we've been in the trenches: responding, innovating, recommending, advising, following when needed, leading when possible through the good days and bad, the moments of crisis and the moments of celebration," the company wrote.

Recently, the project has come under scrutiny from a Bee investigation that has raised questions about the bridge's ability to withstand a severe earthquake.

The company also oversees tours of the construction site, which it described as "one of the most effective and popular ways to showcase the project, and educate stakeholders."

The company said the tours, which have been going on at least since 2010, were for "industry professionals, officials, project partners, students and educators."

Brian Kelly, acting secretary of the Business, Transportation & Housing Agency, ordered the project's cancellation in a letter to Caltrans director Malcolm Dougherty on Friday.

In that letter, Kelly said "the contract calls for some services, at the public's expense, that appear to go beyond those necessary to inform the public about the project, its status, and its impact on public safety and mobility."

Furthermore, he said the duration of the contract - which is scheduled to expire in 2016 - should be reconsidered given the expected opening date of the bridge, in September 2013.

Ben Davis, the founder of Words Pictures Ideas, said the company received notice on Saturday and that it came "as a bit of a surprise."

Caltrans, he said, had "always expressed happiness with the work that we've done."

The company's Bart Ney, who has served as a spokesman for the Bay Bridge project, said work the company did was significant to ensure public safety and avoid potential traffic gridlock during periods in which the Bay Bridge was closed for construction.

He said other large infrastructure projects have included money for commemorative books. He said they are educational and an appropriate way to convey the significance of the project to the public.

McNichol did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. The governor's office, like Caltrans, referred questions to the Business, Transportation & Housing agency.