EXCLUSIVE: Contractor warning came 5 months before brakes failed - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

EXCLUSIVE: Contractor warning came 5 months before brakes failed on ZipperLane

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

The contractor that runs the state's zipper lane on the H-1 freeway was warned to change the brakes five months before brake troubles sidelined a ZipMobile, causing a major traffic jam.

Red brake lights were everywhere and traffic was at a standstill on the H-1 the morning that a ZipMobile broke down January 17, so 4,000 car-pooling commuters could not use the Zipper Lane.

For the first time since they began service in 1998, both vehicles were down at the same time that day.  

One was already out of service awaiting repair and the brakes on the other zip mobile locked up, causing the traffic mess, state transportation officials said. 

Hawaii News Now obtained a manufacturer's inspection report of the Zipper vehicles done back in August of last year that recommended the brakes on the zip mobiles be changed. 

The report said the ZipMobiles were in "good condition" overall, but noted they are 15 years old.

"Many components are beyond the recommended service life due to age, hours or both," said the report, prepared by Lindsay Transportation Solutions Sales and Service, LLC. 

The state Transportation Department pays a company called Safety Systems and Signs Hawaii a little more than $2 million a year to run and maintain the zipper lane and its vehicles in a contract that expired last fall.  

The state is withholding payment for that day's work from Safety Systems and assessing damages allowed under its contract for a total of $6,817, a DOT Spokeswoman Caroline Sluyter said.

"For the past fifteen years the ZipMobiles have been very reliable with few issues until recently," Sluyter said. "As the machines are getting older, the DOT is currently evaluating if it is time to replace one or both of the ZipMobiles." 

A new Zipper vehicle would cost about $1 million, and the DOT has not made a budget request for one from state lawmakers this session, Sluyter said. 

"There are many needs competing for the limited funds that we have," Sluyter said. 

"The machines are over 15 years old and require on-going maintenance and repair, which Safety Systems and Signs Hawaii provides," said Greg Grosch, CEO of Traffic Solutions Corporation, Safety System's corporate owner based in Newport Beach, Calif. "It's being held together with chewing gum.  We're constantly working on it.

Grosch said it's the first time in the 14 years that his company has had the zipper contract that the state conducted an in-depth inspection of the vehicles.

The inspection found 20 items, including the brakes, needed to be changed but none of them were "immediate public safety issues," Grosch said.

He said the company was working to change the components, a lot of which were obsolete and difficult to locate, but had not changed the brakes when they seized up, causing the shut down. 

Grosch said Safety Systems repaired the malfunctioning brakes using parts from the backup machine the same day the problems happened.  The brake parts cost $2,400, he said.

Safety Systems has been the contractor for the Zipper lane operation since 1999.  Its most-recent one-year contract expired Oct. 19 of last year, Sluyter said. 

Safety Systems was the highest of three bidders for a new contract and planned to replace the company with the lowest bidder until Safety Systems filed a contract protest, temporarily extending its contract at its current $2 million-a-year rate while the procurement dispute is settled.  Bid protests can take months and even years to settle. 

Safety Systems bid for an annual contract was $1.9 million, more than the second-highest bidder GP Roadway Systems, whose proposal was nearly $1.7 million and significantly higher than the lowest bidder to whom the state wanted to award the contract, Zip UThere Inc., which bid nearly $1.5 million. 

The Safety Systems bid would have cost state taxpayers $360,442 more a year than the lowest bidder, Zip UThere, Inc. 

It is not clear on what grounds Safety Systems filed its bid protest. 

"Since this matter is in litigation, it is inappropriate for Safety Systems to say anything more at this time," Grosch said.

"During the last manufacturer's inspection the report indicated that both ZipMobiles were in good condition from an overall perspective and that they meet the requirements for continued daily use," Sluyter said.  "Regular maintenance has been performed and specific items were listed for corrective action.  The contractor tells us that the repairs on the most recent inspection list are in progress."

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