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Before You Advertise a Public Works Contract

This page provides a basic overview of the steps local governments in Washington must take before advertising a public works project for competitive bidding, including plans, specifications, and cost estimates.

It is part of MRSC’s series on Public Works Contracts.

Plans, Specifications, and Cost Estimates

Before you advertise a bid, RCW 39.04.020 through 39.04.100 require local agencies to develop plans, specifications, and engineer’s cost estimates. However, the statutes do not address how detailed these items have to be.

Plans and Specifications

All work must be performed in accordance with the plans and specifications, unless supplemental plans and specifications are made and filed showing alterations to the original documents.

Clearly, plans, specifications, and estimates for a new structure, road, or utility project must show all the details of how the project is to be constructed. However, projects like sidewalk repair or street overlays might only need a map showing the locations of the work and referencing the relevant standard details on file at the agency.

When developing plans and specifications for linear construction (roads, sewer, water, etc.), local jurisdictions generally use the Standard Specifications for Road, Bridge, and Municipal Construction as modified by Local Agency General Special Provisions. These standards were developed by APWA and WSDOT and are updated periodically. Plans and specifications for vertical construction (buildings, etc.) generally use variations of AIA Contract Document packages.

Engineer’s Cost Estimates

The level of detail for cost estimates depends on the general size of a project. For larger projects, cost estimates should be developed by a registered professional engineer. For smaller projects, an estimate by knowledgeable staff will suffice. For really small projects, a tradesman’s estimate may do.

For bidding purposes, the cost estimates should include all construction-related work, but not engineering or architectural design fees, contract administration costs, or construction inspection/testing.

Contract Administration Plans

Local agencies also need policy and procedure documents to ensure that the contract is administered properly. These documents should:

  • Provide for delegation of authority and responsibilities to the construction administration team by elected officials, including levels of commitment authority
  • Provide for delegation of authority and responsibilities to different departments in the agency
  • Establish procedures and processes and provide for decision-making at the lowest level possible for timely review and disposition of change orders, claims, and field adjustments
  • Establish timely and routine meetings and reporting formats with elected officials and/or oversight committees during construction

These documents can also be useful to educate elected officials as to how construction contracts really operate, particularly unit price contracts. For example, you may wish to include information about contract amounts and time, which are often sticking points with elected officials.

See the following model language:

Contract Amount
For the purposes of awarding the contract and determining the amount of the performance and payment bonds, the contract amount, or total bid, is the summation of the products of the quantities shown in the proposal by the unit bid prices plus state sales tax or use tax, as applicable.

Quantities shown on the proposal and contract forms are estimates only, given only as a basis for comparison of bids. Increases or decreases in the quantity of any bid item in relation to the proposal quantity will occur, based on conditions in the field. Also, quantities may change as a result of changes in the scope of work, as determined by the Public Works Department, Mayor and Council. The basis of payment is the actual quantity measured in the field, multiplied by the unit bid price of the item of work performed.

Contract Time
Each contract specifies a time of completion of the project, measured in either calendar days or working days from the date that the Notice to Proceed is issued. This time of completion is adjusted, based on weather conditions, weekly. In addition, changes in the scope of work of the project, changed conditions in the field, or delays by the City may be reasonable cause for extensions of contract time.


Procedural Checklists

Procedural checklists for public works contracts are invaluable tools – provided they are kept up-to-date and have been adapted to fit the project size and organizational structure and policies. Many agencies use multiple checklists for projects of different sizes, and some checklists differentiate between federally funded projects and other projects.

It is also useful to provide prospective bidders with a checklist of items to be submitted with their bids and to alert them to items that must be submitted at the time of award.

MRSC has also developed a Statutory Checklist for Local Government Public Works Contracting in Washington State, which lists almost all statutes applicable to public works contracting and has checklists for retainage release and mandatory bidder responsibility criteria.


Practice Tips

In smaller agencies, award and construction management is likely to be accomplished by the same people who managed the design. In larger jurisdictions, there may be two completely different groups: one that develops and awards the contract, and one that inspects and administers the contract.

Even if your agency uses checklists faithfully, a final check of potential pitfalls and fatal flaws may prevent confusion and claims for delay. Have someone relatively unfamiliar with the project go through the contract documents and files and answer these questions:

Prevailing Wage Rates and Sales Tax

  • Do the contract documents explicitly state that prevailing wages apply to the contract and is there a link, at least, to the prevailing wage rate information on L&I’s website for the county in which the work is being accomplished?
  • Are federal funds being used for the project? Federal prevailing wage requirements are different than state requirements. Both sets of requirements have to be followed on the project. Do the contract documents include these?
  • Have you stated the applicable sales tax rules (WAC 458-20-170 and/or 458-20-171) that apply to the project, stated the tax rate to be used, and provided a place on the bid form to itemize the sales tax (if applicable)?

Contract Documents

  • Are bidder responsibility requirements clearly stated? Are you relying completely on the (minimum) mandatory requirements or have you established supplemental criteria? If you have supplemental criteria, have you included language that allow for suggested modifications before bidding occurs and for protests after?
  • Are there any obvious errors, inconsistencies, or confusing details on the plans or in other contract documents?
  • Does your contract have an order of precedence clause to resolve any inconsistencies among the several parts of the contract documents?

Permits, Rights-of-Way, and ADA Requirements

  • Have all required permits and approvals been obtained? Of those permits and approvals not yet obtained, are there any which will prevent the contractor from beginning work on the contract soon after the probable notice of award date?
  • Has all required right-of-way been purchased? Have all permanent and/or temporary construction easements been obtained? If not, is there a danger that the contractor may not be able to construct a critical portion of the project within the anticipated schedule?
  • Has the project design incorporated ADA requirements? ADA ramps at intersections, or other ADA elements, may be required even if the project appears to be simple, such as an overlay of existing streets.
  • Have all potentially affected utilities been contacted? Have the project designers identified and resolved potential conflicts between existing utilities and those to be constructed as part of the project?
  • Are there any potential “fatal flaw” conflicts in the overall project design that could lead to redesign and claims for delay?

Quantities, Cost Estimates, and Contingencies

  • Are the quantities and construction cost estimates reasonable?
  • Have the costs been independently calculated and/or reviewed by someone other than the person who did the original calculations? Experienced estimators know that there are some quantity takeoffs, such as paving materials, that defy exact and neat calculations and may need a certain amount of contingency for realistic estimates.
  • Have your agency’s executive and legislative bodies reviewed and approved your construction budget (including contingencies) and contract administration plan?
  • Do the governing bodies understand unit price contracts and the certainty that the approved contract amount at bid award time will not be the final contract price at contract completion and acceptance?

Last Modified: February 23, 2024