I-35W Bridge Collapse - Week 10

Week 10 by Ivy Chang | September 28, 2010

A report from Wiss, Janney, Elstner, the Chicago engineering firm that MnDOT hired to investigate the bridge collapse, may be available to state officials by next May. However, it will be kept confidential until next August after the National Transportation Safety Board releases its report. The engineering firm signed a state contract the day after the bridge collapse because MnDOT wanted a second opinion but legislators have criticized this report as unnecessary and a waste of $2 million spent to duplicate what the NTSB is doing.

Wiss, Janney, Elstner will submit a 95-percent completed report to MnDOT, when directed, and would serve as an expert witness in any legal proceedings that the state faces. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office said he felt it makes more sense for the consultant's report to be released after the NTSB report.

Legislators and others criticized the use of public money for two reports about a public project that won't be released to the public until next year after state and federal officials can review the reports.

Sixty construction projects delayed

State records show that the high cost of building the I-35W bridge will delay at least 60 highway and bridge projects, including the Wakota Bridge that is half completed. Cost of the projects adds up to a $145-million shortfall that MnDOT faces in 2008 mainly because of the I-35W bridge costing far more than state officials estimated.

Minnesota legislators learned that the state's road and bridge fund is so low on cash that the balance for next month will be $23.5 million in the red. To avert a slow down in road and bridge construction, a legislative panel authorized MnDOT to spend another $60 million in the next several months to keep 41 projects, including the Wakota bridge, on schedule.

Gov. Pawlenty said the extra money will not be enough to help rebuild the I-35W bridge and other projects. The panel rejected Pawlenty's request for at least $145 million to cover construction work through next June while the state waits for $195 million of federal funds to arrive.

State passed on federal money

House and Senate speakers said $60 million would cover construction until the Legislature convenes in February and agrees to more comprehensive funding. In addition, the Legislature could reconsider a gas tax increase. Legislative hearings have been held every month since the bridge collapse to press state transportation officials on their management of the DOT and will continue until the Legislature convenes.

Congress pointed out that states already have access to millions of dollars to spend on bridges classified as deficient or obsolete. But many states, including Minnesota, pass up the money in favor of other money for road and bridge projects of their choice. Minnesota passed up more than $60 million in federal aid for substandard bridges since 2003, according to government records. State officials also transferred $41 million out of the federal bridge fund in the last five years because they wanted flexibility to use other money.

Another lawsuit

Two independent businessmen in the construction industry filed a lawsuit against MnDOT over the selection of Colorado-based Flatiron Constructors. The suit seeks to stop MnDOT from proceeding with rebuilding the I-35W bridge and claims the contract with Flatiron is illegal because it is the most expensive and "based on arbitrary and capricious decisions." The plaintiffs said MnDOT gave Flatiron "a competitive advantage" by allowing the contractor to submit a design that differed from the original requirements and wants the contract canceled. The lawsuit asks MnDOT to respond in 20 days and seeks to have their attorney fees covered.

To calm the anger over its contractor selection, MnDOT released the renderings of the bridges that were not selected. The renderings showed designs that were more functional, with less elegance, and materials that may not stand up to the weather. Figg Engineering, which designed the selected bridge, also planned to solicit public input on its bridge design at the end of October. The public also will vote on one of two options for the piers.

Reason for a course

At the University of Minnesota, a course called "The River, the Bridge, the Community: Beyond the Headlines of the I-35W Bridge Collapse" began during the fall semester to consider how Minnesota's transportation system and the Mississippi River ecosystem will be shaped by decisions made in the next year. The course is offered jointly by several departments with lectures on bridges in general, the Mississippi River as a national park and a bio-physical system, and the design of the new bridge.