Fourth Street Bridge trapped in legal limbo

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The City’s Fourth Street Bridge project was plagued by millions of dollars in cost overruns and hundreds of days over schedule. The bridge work finished in 2006, but the headache continues with mounting legal bills as litigation over the project remains an ongoing court battle.

Next month, the Board of Supervisors will be asked to approve spending an additional $2.8 million to pay for additional legal costs in a lawsuit filed against The City by the contractor selected to complete the Fourth Street Bridge project, San Francisco-based Mitchell Engineering Inc.

Work began in 2003 to renovate the Fourth Street Bridge, a drawbridge which spans the Mission Channel near AT&T Park and is a key component of the Third Street rail line. What was to be a $17 million project taking a year and a half ended up lasting three years and costing “$36 million and change,” according to Curtis Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Engineering. The City has paid him $21 million but he is suing for an additional sum of more than $20 million, which he says he is owed for labor, materials and time. The lawsuit says The City is to blame since it provided faulty designs and analysis of the site’s conditions.

The money to pay for the legal fight would come out of The City’s operating budget reserve fund. The bill comes as The City is facing a $380 million budget deficit for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The City Attorney’s Office would not say how much has already been spent in legal costs fighting the lawsuit over the Fourth Street Bridge project. The nearly $3 million funding request will pay for such things as witness depositions, experts, trial preparation and the trial itself. A trial could take about 12 weeks. Settlement talks are expected to occur again in April.

The City has counter sued for at least $14 million in liquidated damages for not completing the project on time, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is just one of several Mitchell has filed against The City. He says his problems began when he started complaining publicly about the Fourth Street project. He is now suing over five other public works projects for compensation he says he is owed. Mitchell was recently awarded $3.6 million by a jury in a federal case where he argued The City wrongfully fired him from the Central Pump project in 2007 in retaliation.

City Attorney’s Office spokesman Jack Song said there are “other cost efficient legal solutions” instead of continuing the legal wrangling that is “wasting tax paper money.”

“The bureaucrats, in my opinion, don’t want to have egg on their faces,” Mitchell said. “They don’t want us to work in this town again. That’s not acceptable to us. We got to get our name cleared.”

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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