I-35W Bridge Update - Week 9

Week 9 By Ivy Chang | September 28, 2010

The cost of replacing the Interstate 35W bridge jumped to almost $400 million, far exceeding funds set aside by the federal government and Minnesota. Legislators at a hearing on federal and state costs for the project were surprised by this new figure that the Minnesota Department of Transportation revealed.

The cost breakdown: $234 million for the winning reconstruction bid; $27 million for early completion incentives; $59 million for right-of-way, utility and environmental mitigation agreements; $20 million to reconfigure roads used in traffic rerouting; $18 million for demolition and debris removal; $18 million in added operational and inspection costs at MnDOT; and $17 million in other government response costs.

Wide variance in estimates

In response to Commissioner Carol Molnau's explanation of the increase, legislators said they assumed the federal government would cover nearly all of the cost. Now, this figure is 57-percent higher than the original cost, and legislators asked whether the state should inform the U.S. Department of Transportation which distributes the funds.

A governor spokesperson said Minnesota will work with legislators to decide how to make up the difference which includes borrowing, using state general funds and applying for additional federal funds.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office said that the difference in cost occurred because MnDOT concentrated on the cost of rebuilding the bridge after the collapse and did not tally incidental costs, such as reconfiguring local roads and added inspections.

Oberstar responds

Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chair of the House Transportation Committee, said Gov. Pawlenty failed to make a formal request of $175 million in special emergency funds available to states through the Federal Highway Administration. In addition, Minnesota has not used all of the $55 million already available that does not require congressional appropriation.

Minnesota's Senate Transportation Committee said Gov. Pawlenty should fire Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau for what the committee says are "numerous examples of incompetence." Chair Steve Murphy, D-Red Wing, blamed Molnau and other MnDOT officials for MnDOT's choice of the highest bidder to replace the bridge, lawsuits and complaints from the losing bidders and the emergency response manager's trip to the East Coast following the bridge collapse. He hinted that the full Senate would not confirm Molnau as commissioner when the Legislature convenes in February.

Recovery work completed

Carl Bolander and Sons continued to dredge the Mississippi River and removed the last bridge pieces by the end of September. The contractor has less than two weeks to be out of the river.

As it waits for the bridge recovery to end, the Minneapolis Transportation and Public Works Committee approved the proposed design for the new I-35W bridge on September 25. Full City Council vote is expected at its meeting on October 5.

A major emphasis on the bridge design from the City Council was the capability to handle light rail or bus transit. The new design features broader shoulders on each span to convert to light rail transit in the future. The twin bridges would be 189 feet wide, five lanes each, with an 8-foot space between the spans.

Design and terminology issues

But Minneapolis wants MnDOT to address other issues, such as pedestrian and bicycle safety at various exits and an 80-foot-wide opening under the bridge on the east bank to accommodate one of the six railroad tracks, trails and sidewalks.

Engineers and other officials across the country have their concerns about the terminology to describe bridges across the country. A MnDOT spokesperson said that engineers created the terminology in their environment and, sometimes, they don't know how it affects the public. A MnDOT engineer said he has difficulty explaining terms like "fracture critical" and scores assigned to bridges at public meetings.

The rating system for bridges is set by Congress and the Federal Highway Administration. Possible changes to the terminology may be discussed at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials annual conference that is going on in Milwaukee this week.

Contractor will hire locals

Flatiron Constructors Inc., which received the bid, expects to hire at least 250 people working on the bridge, most of whom will be local union laborers. It also defended its design and said it justified a higher cost. A manager at Flatiron downplayed concerns about a national firm beating local companies and emphasized that there's no difference between contractors when hiring local crafts people to work on a project.