Minnesota's legislative auditor launched an investigation into alleged improprieties in the work schedule of a senior MnDOT official who is in charge of emergency response but was on a business trip when the I-35W bridge collapsed and didn't return until 10 days after the disaster. The official's history of state-paid travels and her work schedule raised serious questions from legislators about MnDOT management.
The senior official's record showed she took 17 business trips since mid 2006 costing the state $26,400. She was in Washington, D.C., and Cambridge, Massachusetts, for 16 nights during the bridge collapse. She is now on leave.
At the request of the Star Tribune, MnDOT released notes by bridge inspectors that showed the department decided not to use a consultant it hired to help inspect the I-35W bridge for fatal flaws. Instead inspectors used visual and ultrasonic methods to check slightly more than half of a critical section of the bridge, took more than 200 photographs and logged 15 pages of notes about the inspection in May 2007.
Chief bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said the inspectors told him they did not need assistance and did not find any problems on the bridge. But in January, URS, the consultant, did an extensive study on the bridge at MnDOT's request and recommended a special inspection of the steel beams considered susceptible to cracking.
MnDOT then signed a contract with URS, Minneapolis office, in April that said the department "needed contractor assistance to inspect the superstructure steel welds and will assist MnDOT as it conducts in-depth fracture critical inspections of the superstructure welds."
However, MnDOT inspected those segments without help from URS, never used URS, and did not pay URS the authorized amount stated in the contract because "we did not have a need to utilize them," according to a spokesperson.
Flatiron Construction Inc., based in Colorado, won the intense competition to build the new I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. The company has selected three partners to work on the project: Manson Construction, Seattle; Johnson Bros., Orlando; and Figg Engineering, Tallahassee.
Flatiron had a major role in rebuilding the I-10 bridge in Pensacola, Florida, after Hurricane Ivan's damage in 2004 and also worked on a span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge.
Johnson Bros., formerly of Minneapolis, and Figg Engineering helped build bridges in the Twin Cities and helped perform bridge inspections on the Crosstown Commons reconstruction project going on in Minneapolis.
MnDOT would not comment on the award because the contract has not been signed but gave scant details on the selection process which included technical, aesthetic, costs, and time factors that translated into a final score for each team. Flatiron's score was, by far, the highest. However, Flatiron's bid was $57 million more than the lowest bidder and tied for the longest time at 437 days, 70 days longer than the shortest time. The lowest bid and shortest times were submitted by local contractors with experience in bridge construction.
Minneapolis officials and some legislators questioned the need for a speedy selection, asked MnDOT to wait and criticized the department for releasing few details of the true cost for a new bridge.
The next day, two losing bidders filed a protest with the state over MnDOT's selection of Flatiron. The two, C. S. McCrossan and Ames/Lunda, said that MnDOT misled them about what the state wanted as a replacement bridge. Each had bids that were $50 million less than Flatiron. Their lawyer wrote, "MnDOT consistently emphasized to both teams MnDOT's desire for a bridge design and approach that would minimize the cost and time of construction."
According to MnDOT instructions, proposing teams can protest the awarding of a contract following plans MnDOT has set. The protest official will consider only whether the award is arbitrary, capricious or contrary to law and will make a recommendation to the transportation commissioner.
MnDOT said it will have to delay maintenance and other metro-area projects in order to get the I-35W bridge rebuilt unless legislative leaders give permission to the department to spend federal money that's not yet appropriated. The $195 million that was on the fast track days after the bridge collapsed is now stuck in a transportation bill that President George W. Bush threatens to veto.
Minnesota legislators said they were surprised that MnDOT would delay any project but also are concerned about the funds that are bogged down in Washington.