Prepared for Justice

The Howard County Courthouse P3 project opened its doors earlier this year, ahead of schedule despite the impact of Covid-19. Paul Jarvis discovers what made this scheme run so smoothly

As the old saying goes, ‘Fail to prepare and prepare to fail’.

It was an adage that seems to have been noted and taken fully to heart by the team behind the Howard County Courthouse P3 project. Handed over on time (technically, a day early, in fact) and on budget despite the preceding year being impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the new facility is now up and running.

The road to get to this point was a long one - however perhaps the biggest testament to its success is the fact that, three years on from the Edgemoor-Star America consortium being chosen to deliver the project, all parties were pleased to get together to discuss its progress.

During a roundtable discussion with those involved in the project, a number of key themes were drawn out that can be applied to other schemes across the country - indeed, across the world of P3 and capital investment programs generally.

First on that list is the amount of effort that was put into ensuring the county officials in both the executive and political branches were well-versed in the reasons for going down a P3 route. 

“This was an extraordinarily well-planned project,” said Eric Petersen, of law firm Hawkins, who worked on the scheme. “There was a clear understanding of the need, and the client had clearly thought about why they wanted to use this delivery method.”

Lonnie Robbins, chief administrator for Howard County, explained that the redevelopment of the courthouse had been put off for many years previously because of its large capital cost. With the county typically having an upper limit for its capital bond program of no more than $120m per year, a replacement courthouse would have swallowed up all that capital, leaving nothing for other projects in the county, such as schools.

“P3 was a way to get it going while not impacting the investment in schools and other things,” explained Robbins.

Before the county even began the solicitation process, it received an information session from experts on the main tenets of P3. Once the decision was taken to explore the P3 model, officials in the county began the groundwork to make sure they knew what the concept could and couldn’t achieve. 

The benefit of a political champion on projects has often been talked about, and Howard County certainly had that in Judge Lenore Gelfman, who was quick to recognize what a P3 model could offer - and, crucially, how to build momentum for it. 

“I contacted and explained to the county’s council members and executive what our needs were and why we needed a new courthouse,” she explained. “The courthouse was over 140 years old and things like security, space management and the technical abilities were extremely challenging because of the structure.”

From this starting point Judge Gelfman spoke to as many stakeholders as possible: the local and state Bar associations; the state Court of Appeal judge; legislators; the police and fire departments; victims charities; even jurors. “I took them on a tour to show them the current courthouse,” she explained. “It worked, because many council members told me they received calls from their constituents supporting a new courthouse.”

Having such strong political leadership proved to be absolutely critical on this project, where the council was split across bipartisan lines, with four Democrats and one Republican on the council, plus a Republican in the executive role. And the politics could have undermined the project even further when all six were replaced during elections, meaning work to educate the political branch had to start again.

However, as Robbins explained, a large amount of work had been done by this stage to get key approvals in place before the elections, meaning that the project had significant momentum. It also provided the private sector with confidence that the scheme would go ahead.

Edgemoor-Star America was appointed as the delivery partner on the deal in June 2018, reaching financial close that NOvember. The following month, however, saw the elections transform the political landscape in which the team was working. Recognizing this complete change in the political stakeholders, the team embarked on a ‘design fine tuning’ period where they sought to discuss with the new political partners how to progress the scheme.

“It became a progressive style of procurement, even though that hadn’t been part of the original tender process,” said Donald Gibson, vice president at Edgemoor. “During that time, 437 program changes were made at no cost to the county. If the new stakeholders wanted something different, that was acceptable as long as it would still keep the project within the cost and time constraints.”

Risk reaction
Bob Jones, an assistant vice president at Arcadis US, highlighted the importance of the public sector procurer understanding how it needs to balance the different risks between itself and the private partner. One of the big problems that has long faced P3 projects around the world is the public sector believing that the private partner will simply take on all of the risk in a project, and that this will offer best value.

In fact, there are many risks that are more effectively and efficiently managed by the public sector and therefore should remain with the procuring authority.

“The focus on the allocation of risk was ‘how many unknowns can we eradicate at the outset?’” explained Jones. 

As a result of this approach taken by the procuring authority, a range of reports were undertaken that were able to feed into a plan to eliminate the site development plan risk.

This early work that had been undertaken meant that bidders could come to the table with their eyes open about what was required of them on the project. “The quality of documents at the pre-bid stage was outstanding,” said Gibson.

Even with all this upfront work undertaken, there was one thing that threatened to send the whole project off-course: the Covid-19 pandemic. Work on the project was forced to shut down, and even when it could start up, social distancing rules meant building progressed more slowly than originally anticipated.

In the end, the project was handed over on time - but the delays meant that the buffer included in the original timeline for testing and fine tuning was almost entirely swallowed up. As a result, many of the standard snagging issues are being worked through now on the live project - something that again demonstrates the strong level of trust between parties as they work through issues together.

“Covid threw tremendous roadblocks in front of our team but we somehow kept it on time and within budget despite all of that. Clark Construction, our team’s design-builder, deserves a lot of credit,” said Brian Dugan, who led the project for Edgemoor. “There were plenty of reasons for both sides to say ‘we are not ready’, but neither did.”

Court administrator Jennifer Keiser underlined this spirit of togetherness, saying that there is a strong level of collaboration in dealing with snagging issues. In her view, it has been a continuation of how the scheme has progressed from the beginning.

“The best thing I found about this project was the communication,” she said. “Having Edgemoor and Star working with a group that they had worked with before meant the communication was excellent between them. They communicated well within their group, rather than the county having to go to each individual party with any item of communication.

“The way we all worked together led to the success of the project.”

Dugan agreed. “The advisors and project owners were always in the room during important discussions. Each side was open to ideas from the other and that created a collaborative environment.”

That, in turn, has led to a good result for the people of Maryland. “This has been one of the best projects in terms of the end user,” said Darrin Granger, Administrative Lieutenant for the Howard County Sheriff’s Office under Sheriff Marcus Harris, and who was the representative for safety & security on the project. From a security point of view, he explained the issues have been dealt with in relation to moving people around the building and the technical issues that had previously made life difficult for those trying to keep everyone safe within the building.

“We will be the poster child for many years to come,” he concluded. 

That may not simply be for the security side of the project, and not even simply for courthouse or social infrastructure projects. As the Biden administration looks to leverage private finance to support its ambitious investment plans, the joint working and collaboration demonstrated on the Howard County Courthouse project may become a poster child for infrastructure projects of all shapes and sizes across the nation.