Transportation officials told a legislative hearing today they're going to speed up bridge construction, and make other improvements to Interstate 494 to be ready for traffic by the summer of 2010.
The old bridge that carried Interstate 494 across the Mississippi River was bad, but its replacement hasn't been much of an improvement, according to Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, who chairs the House Commerce and Labor Committee. A year after the entire project was supposed to be complete, only half the bridge is done.
"We still sit at this point now, five years into the project, with the eastbound span -- literally, it looks like a jumpoff point," said Atkins. "You'd literally need a sleigh and eight reindeer at this point to try and get across."
Atkins held a hearing Tuesday morning to find out what's next for the project, now that some of its major legal, engineering and political problems are -- well, water under the bridge.
State transportation officials last week accepted a $20 million settlement with HNTB, the Kansas City engineering firm that designed the first, flawed effort to replace the bridge.
Work was halted on the project in 2004 when tiny cracks were found running through the new six-lane westbound half of the bridge. The span had to be reinforced with steel cabling, at a cost of nearly $20 million.
The state fired, then rehired the general contractor. The Legislature forced out Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau as transportation commissioner, in part over the project, and the rest of the bridge went literally back on the drawing board.
Since then, what was supposed to be a $58 million project has ballooned into a $114 million project, nearly twice the original estimated cost.
“You'd literally need a sleigh and eight reindeer at this point to try and get across [the river].”Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights
And while the bridge may finally open to traffic in 19 months, other questions are still dogging the project.
Tim Geraghty, the newly elected mayor of Newport, which sits at the foot of the east side of the bridge, said his constituents told him during his campaign that they still don't believe the completed span is safe.
State Bridge engineer Dan Dorgan assured lawmakers the bridge would stand, as is, for as long as a century.
"The very reason we stopped construction and did the retrofit was to make sure that we had a bridge that would give us the desired outcome, which is 75 to 100 years of service, and can carry the full loads that it was designed to carry," said Dorgan. "Admittedly, it was at the cost of delay and a high cost to fix it. But that is why we took those steps, to make sure the finished product was what we were looking for in the first place."
But Geraghty also said the construction itself has been devastating to his city of 3,700 people. He said two gas stations and a restaurant have gone out of business since work on the bridge disrupted traffic through town.
Geraghty said he thinks the state needs to make some effort to make Newport whole again.
"Don't forget about Newport. I would guess that 80 percent of the work was done in Newport territory, and we've been devastated. The delays have cost the city of Newport dearly," said Geraghty.
Several lawmakers questioned the state settlement with the company that designed the bridge, and said it didn't account for indirect impacts like those.
"I think there's been people that have been sitting out there for the last four years," said Atkins. "We run food and water out to them as they're waiting to get across the bridge. It's just gotten to be the sort of thing that's just a stranglehold on our economy and on our people's time."
Atkins said he wanted the documentation from last week's settlement with the bridge designers, and that he would continue to press to move the project along.
But transportation officials said there was little they could do. Plans call for the bridge to be built in place, rather than cast as concrete segments and assembled later, like the new 35W bridge. A change would require a redesign that would delay the project even more.
The only consolation they offered was that work on the actual bridge span should finally start in February 2009, and that they hoped to shave about three months off the remaining project schedule.
Chief engineer Khani Sahebjam also said the state will won't let its contractors check their own work any more.
"We always talked about having one engineer of record, where you hire a big consulting firm, who has their own checks and balances. That is not going to be the case any longer, especially with the major bridges. We will be hiring another third-party consulting firm," said Sahebjam.
Sahebjam said it might cost millions more on each project, but that it's clear now that the potential problems aren't worth the savings.