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Miami-based bridge builder defaults on five local projects

Mark Parker



A September 2023 photo of construction on St. Petersburg's 9th St. South (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St.) bridge. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is now working on a "recovery plan" due to continuous delays. Photo: FDOT.

Pinellas County commissioners voted Tuesday to terminate contracts with a construction firm overseeing long-delayed bridge projects from Palm Harbor to South St. Petersburg totaling $17.4 million.

Board Chair Kathleen Peters told residents that potential litigation against Miami-based American Empire Builders limited the commission’s ability to discuss the matter. However, in a prepared statement, she pledged that county officials would “aggressively” resolve the issues “in the very near future.”

“Rest assured, we have heard your complaints and your frustration,” Peters said. “And we want you to know that our board is in absolute agreement that the performance and the conduct of this contractor has been, and continues to be, unacceptable.”

The saga began in April 2020 when county officials selected American Empire to replace the Westwinds and Crosswinds Bridges in Palm Harbor. The projects, totaling $4.4 million, were supposed to conclude in 2022.

In December 2021, the county awarded American Empire another contract to replace the Oakwood Bridge in unincorporated Harbor Bluffs, south of Bellair Bluffs. The contractor was supposed to complete the $3.3 million project last year.

Multiple public speakers urged commissioners to terminate the contracts and clear dangerous piles of debris scattered around the construction sites. Bill Sumansky, a Palm Harbor resident, said he offered to bring the materials to the county landfill before his family visited for Christmas.

“And if you terminate the bridge contract with American Empire, I believe that their liability insurance probably isn’t going to be in effect any longer, either,” Sumansky said. “At that point, the liability of all the rusted rebar and the kids playing on it, and everything else going on there, falls on somebody else.”

Jill Silverboard, deputy county administrator, said the Westwinds Bridge is “essentially done,” and Crosswinds is “close.” Construction on the Harbor Bluffs project is farther behind, and Silverboard could not provide completion timelines.

She said county workers would attempt to finish the Westwinds project, and administrators hope a current contractor can complete the Crosswinds Bridge. Silverboard said they must restart the bidding process in Harbor Bluffs after an engineering team reassesses American Empire’s work.

Commissioners unanimously agreed to terminate its contracts with the company. They also suspended American Empire from bidding on county contracts for two years.

The Oakwood Drive Bridge in unincorporated Harbor Bluffs. Pinellas County officials must restart the request for proposals process.

St. Petersburg

The City of St. Petersburg is in a similar predicament. In June 2021, American Empire began replacing the 74-year-old Tanglewood Bridge in flood-prone Shore Acres.

The bridge on Bayou Grande Boulevard is the only way on and off an island cul-de-sac. City officials sent the first of several notices of deficiency for schedule noncompliance in March 2023.

Construction has reduced the critical passageway to one temporary lane. The $3.6 million project was supposed to conclude in December 2023.

In an emailed statement, Erica Riggins, the City’s public information officer, said the bridge is over halfway complete. She noted that the city issued American Empire a notice of default Jan. 19.

“Our engineering director and legal team are actively engaged in discussions to address the contractor’s failure to complete work on time,” Riggins wrote. “Additionally, we have been working closely with the contractor’s surety bond company (which insures construction projects) to ensure a resolution that aligns with the best interests of the community.

“The city has been coordinating with other qualified contractors to ensure that the surety bond company may be able to use to complete the project.”

That is not the end of American Empire’s local issues. In April 2021, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) awarded the company a $6 million contract to replace the 9th Street South (Dr Martin Luther King Jr. St.) bridge adjacent to St. Petersburg’s Campbell Park neighborhood.

The new bridge will feature wider lanes, sidewalks and a new drainage and street lighting system. American Empire was supposed to complete the work last year.

FDOT officials recently posted an update to the project’s web page. “We are actively working with the contractor and their surety company on a recovery plan to complete the project in a timely manner,” they wrote. “We will keep you posted on the project schedule.”





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