I-35W Bridge Update - Week 10

Week 10 by Ivy Chang | September 28, 2010

The Minnesota Department of Transportation announced it awarded the new I-35W bridge reconstruction to Flatiron Constructors/Manson after the Department of Administration dismissed the complaints filed by two local contractors who lost the bid and upheld the winning bid. At the announcement and public viewing, Flatiron Constructors unveiled its rendering of a bridge that would last 100 years.

The concrete box-girder, redundant bridge features two spans over the Mississippi River with special LED lighting, railings that allow drivers to see the river and a sensor system to detect potential failure. Observation decks and monuments are planned at the base of the piers. The bridge will be built light-rail ready but will not accommodate light rail or bus transit for many years. Construction could start on November 1.

Minneapolis approved plans

On the previous day, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved the state plans for rebuilding the bridge and got almost all of what it sought on the new bridge, including a fifth lane for light-rail transit, space for southeast Second Street, a potential parkway extension under the north embankment under the bridge, and a shared-cost bike tunnel through the south embankment.

Another sign of progress was evident when the NTSB opened the Mississippi River near downtown to barges, commercial vessels and recreational boats for the first time since the bridge collapse. The ban had been in effect between St. Anthony Falls to the Ford Bridge in St. Paul.

Lawsuits and poll results

Lawsuits are increasing over the bridge collapse. Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, a Minneapolis law firm representing victims of the bridge collapse, is suing MnDOT claiming the agency is withholding key information and giving the information only to a Chicago engineering firm MnDOT hired to investigate the collapse separately from the NTSB. The law firm asked for diagnostic studies, photos of the bridge and correspondence dating back to 1967 when the bridge was built but received little from MnDOT.

Over the weekend, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll showed that 50 percent of respondents opposed raising the gas tax versus 46 percent supporting it with more Minnesotans in rural areas opposing the gas tax than in the metro area. The poll surveyed 802 Minnesota adults who don't blame Gov. Tim Pawlenty for not dealing with the bridge collapse in a recent special session but also sees no need for another special session.

Wakota Bridge remains unfinished

Another metro area bridge is also in the spotlight for cost overruns that will delay its completion when the state uses funding to rebuild the I-35W bridge. An independent mediation board of the state found Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau acted improperly when she halted construction of the Wakota bridge, which was half finished, last year. The dispute between MnDOT and the contractor, Lunda Construction Co., was not revealed.

However, delays and cost overruns were scrutinized at a hearing where Molnau answered questions about the project. She said Lunda wanted too much money to build the second half of the bridge and the Department of Transportation was acting in the best interest of the public when it re-bid the project. The board wants MnDOT to account for all funds allocated to the Wakota bridge and provide specific details of the unspent portion.

In addition, the board criticized MnDOT for a seven-month delay when engineers overlooked a wastewater main that was in the spot designated for a pier. A legislator wants MnDOT to explain why engineers didn't find the design error until most of the concrete was poured.

Cost overruns deplete MnDOT's budget

Currently, with termination costs, possible lawsuits and rising cost of materials, MnDOT could spend more money for Wakota bridge's second span than Lunda's bid of $58.9 million. The department said it has set aside $50 million to complete the Wakota bridge but doesn't know if contractors will submit bids close to that amount when the job is re-bid in January.

With two major bridge constructions, Minnesota's budget for highway construction and maintenance will be short of cash even if all federal money to rebuild the I-35W bridge comes through. MnDOT produced a list of 200 projects planned for 2008 and said the cash shortage will postpone an undetermined number on the list but will preserve maintenance projects first.

The governor's office said the state may seek more funding from the federal government, borrow or transfer more money from the general fund. Gov. Pawlenty asked legislators to use the state's general fund to advance $195 million to rebuild I-35W bridge until an equal amount arrives from the federal government. Finance commissioner Tom Hanson assured legislators that the general fund cash flow is more than adequate to advance that amount. Legislators have not signed off on this request because they questioned MnDOT's accountability and the longer-term problem of inadequately funding highway projects as Pawlenty vetoes higher taxes.