The first year of major construction on a future light-rail line in St. Paul suffered from communication lapses, haphazard planning, and inattention to community concerns — and that's according to the government agency that manages the project.
Hundreds of documents examined by MPR News show the magnitude of performance problems associated with building the St. Paul portion of the massive Central Corridor transit system connecting to Minneapolis.
Community members have complained about treacherous sidewalks and blocked access to businesses.
The records reveal just how systemic some of the glitches were.
In some cases, project staff with the Met Council urged the general contractor to fix a problem — only to have Chicago-based Walsh Construction repeat the mistake again and again. At one point, an exasperated project official questioned whether Walsh had control of its own crews.
The Met Council is ultimately responsible for the $957 million Central Corridor endeavor, billed as the largest and arguably one of the most complex public-works projects in state history. It's scheduled to start service in 2014.
As the council remains determined to deliver the project on time and on budget, even Central Corridor supporters say some of the simplest things went overlooked, compounding the frustrations among business owners and city officials.
"Small wounds, untreated, become infected and can result in major illness and/or death," wrote St. Paul city engineer John Maczko in a Sept. 16 email to a Central Corridor staff member. "I see a similar trend with this project."
With the bulk of construction to resume on University Avenue in March, the Met Council said it is pressing the contractor to step up its performance. Last month, two top project officials met with Walsh executives at their corporate offices in Chicago.
"We had a very frank discussion with them," said Mark Fuhrmann, who oversees new rail development for the regional agency. "We told them their performance was not to our level of expectations in 2011, and that things must change in 2012."
Fuhrmann acknowledged the project encountered delays from the beginning, starting with an incomplete work schedule that Walsh provided leading up to the March 2011 start date. As Walsh made its first foray into the Twin Cities market, the contractor took more time than expected to develop relationships with subcontractors and assemble its crews, Fuhrmann said.
Complicating matters is the route itself; it weaves through the heart of the city and onto an avenue flanked by businesses.
Yet even after the earth-movers started to tear up the streets, the project continued to stall and misfire.
Through a data practices request, MPR News reviewed written correspondence between the Met Council and the general contractor building the eastern seven miles of the 11-mile line. On this stretch from downtown St. Paul to the Minneapolis border, documents from the Met Council show repeated environmental violations, sloppy work that threatened pedestrians, scheduling delays, failures to communicate, and a lack of oversight by the contractor.
From July to mid-December, the council issued more than 100 "nonconformance" reports, which project officials say pertained to more serious issues in which Walsh did not comply with the contract.
One source of frustration came after workers ripped up the sidewalks along the light-rail route. The contract requires Walsh to maintain a safe pedestrian path, but "Walsh has been inconsistent at best and non-existent at worst," wrote a transportation engineer working on the project.
The most striking example was a spot near the facility for the State Services for the Blind, where the sidewalk narrowed by more than two feet and then abruptly dropped off by a foot. There were also uncovered holes up to six feet deep near the pedestrian detours, records say.
Employee John Hess, who is blind, relies on his fast-trotting service dog, Barclay, to use judgment when approaching dangerous situations that Hess cannot see. But the experience of walking from the bus stop to his office left a lot to chance, he said.
"Terrified," Hess said. "Sometimes it was just hit or miss — 'Let's go for it and see what happens.' And there were times where cars would turn, and I didn't know about it, and Barclay would have to execute some nice little maneuvers to get out of their way."
When Fuhrmann, of the project office, showed pictures of the walkways to the Walsh executives in Chicago, "their eyes bulged out," he said.
"The pedestrian bypass would put that pedestrian in the street — in the traffic," Furhmann said. "Unacceptable."
FINES AGAINST WALSH
Problems with inaccessible sidewalks and pedestrian detours led to the only fines against Walsh, totaling $50,000 over the summer.
Although Fuhrmann and other top officials have helped steer other large rail projects to completion, this is the Met Council's first stab as an agency at building light-rail. The Minnesota Department of Transportation led construction of the Hiawatha line in Minneapolis, although Met Council planners were heavily involved.
The Walsh Group, the parent company of Walsh Construction, is a seasoned contracting giant, and many local players were impressed with the firm's portfolio. It has built light-rail in Dallas, Phoenix, and Charlotte. Its bid on the Central Corridor job was about $14 million less than the second-lowest bid.
The Met Council recognizes that Walsh is not to blame for some of the challenges in St. Paul. Crews uncovered a surprising amount of asbestos and utilities underground, which resulted in some delays. The contractor also ran into design problems, in which the reality under the street differed from the specifications in the contract.
Letters from Walsh show the firm requesting change orders to the contract, and project officials say some were granted.
"There were many issues with design that most of these people are not aware of and again Walsh is being penalized for this," wrote Walsh's senior project manager, Don Henry, in a July 20 letter to the Met Council. "The people voting have no idea as to the reasons why some of the timelines are not met."
Henry was objecting to mostly negative reviews provided by business owners and residents tasked with recommending the contractor's incentive pay. The "construction communication committees" made sure Walsh received less than half of its available incentive pay for 2011. [Read the project office's response to Henry's letter. ]
Despite Walsh's rocky start, project officials say the volume of problems is typical for an undertaking of this size. In fact, Fuhrmann, who has experience planning Metro rail projects in Washington D.C., recalls one contractor falling so far behind schedule that the agency had to terminate the contract. "That was a very ugly situation when you had the street opened up, and the contractor was not performing," he said.
By contrast, Furhmann said he would rate Walsh's performance as "fair to good."
With more than 2,300 workers on the job, it's understandable some will make mistakes, said Richard Rovang, the project's director. He maintains the contractor tried to fix issues as they surfaced.
"Our disappointment has been that in general, they don't correct them as quickly as they should," he said.
For example, the Met Council issued multiple reports against Walsh for mishandling asbestos. Excavation crews uncovered transite pipes, which are often used to protect electrical wiring. Instead of stopping work immediately and reporting the presence of asbestos-containing materials, construction crews went ahead with removing them with no special oversight staff present, the documents say.
"Walsh has proven time and again that they are incapable of following environmental laws when they are in close proximity to existing asbestos," a project staff member wrote in July.
After numerous reprimands, Walsh trained crews to better identify asbestos and even started a "behavior-modification program." The initiative, according to an Aug. 16 nonconformance report, involved rewarding workers who made the right decisions with gift certificates.
Although certain kinds of asbestos materials can be carcinogenic when disturbed, it's unlikely that Central Corridor workers were exposed to significant health risks when handling the transite piping, Rovang said. The project office was primarily concerned with Walsh not following the contract, he said.
Walsh's contract violations "range from the serious to the mundane," according to an August nonconformance report. Even a simple order, such as asking the crews to avoid using limited customer parking for businesses, repeatedly went unheeded.
The project staffer noted that the contract requires Walsh to supervise its workers and subcontractors. But, the report says there are "numerous examples where the Contractor does not appear to be able to control either."
RESPONDING TO INQUIRY
Walsh officials did not return phone calls requesting comment about contract compliance — and that's how the Met Council prefers it. The $205 million contract forbids the company from speaking to reporters about Central Corridor.
After MPR News questioned the policy, the project office allowed a reporter to interview Walsh's public-outreach coordinator, but she couldn't speak to issues that arose before she started the job in November.
Kimberly Sannes, the outreach worker, defended Walsh's responsiveness.
"They are working their tail off," she said. "They are striving for perfection."
SPRINT TO THE FINISH
From the outside perspective, stakeholders along the light-rail route were equally frustrated with the building of the line.
A separate data request to the city of St. Paul turned up more than 100 pages of emails between city officials closely involved with the project and the Met Council's Central Corridor staff. The documents show city representatives — from City Council Member Russ Stark to rank-and-file planners — trying to provide a voice for businesses and residents.
"We've all been concerned about the length of time that the fences/barricades have been up without significant work happening," reads a May 12 email from Nancy Homans, Mayor Chris Coleman's policy director.
The slow pace of construction continued to worry city and project officials as the season wore on. And even as Walsh scrambled to play catch-up, some feared the contractor would fail to meet a key Nov. 30 deadline requiring the completion of roadwork on western University Avenue. City officials were concerned that parts of the avenue would remain exposed when the snow began to fly.
"The closure of University Avenue to traffic IS NOT AN OPTION in any length," wrote St. Paul City Engineer John Maczko in a Sept. 16 email to the project office. "A lack of early planning is NOT going to change the requirement."
But the city, which is not a major funder of the project, had to think creatively about how to throw around its weight. In his email, Mackzo threatened using "any and all means necessary" to block further stripping of University Avenue until Walsh provided a thorough construction schedule.
The St. Paul public works department was willing to park huge snow-plowing trucks on the road to prevent the contractors from digging up the street, according to city officials with knowledge of the situation. Officials also explored legal options, including a restraining order.
Those measures weren't necessary. After adding extra crews and working extra hours, Walsh essentially beat the clock, avoiding penalties of $10,000 a day. One exception was a segment of track between Cleveland and Prior avenues, which the Met Council said will be completed later this year.
POOR PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT
Scheduling problems aside, many complained that Walsh was not taking the community's concerns seriously.
Taking cues from light-rail towns such as Salt Lake City, the Met Council adopted an unusual incentive program that provides residents and businesses with a way to hold the contractor accountable. The construction communication committees meet regularly to discuss progress on the construction, as well as complaints about the contractor's performance. The committees also help determine Walsh's incentive pay.
"We hear from the contractor about what they're doing, and we try to resolve problems," said Anne White, a neighborhood advocate and an alternate committee member. "The frustration is sometimes they don't address the issues, or say they can't do anything about it."
The contract requires Walsh to provide a full-time community relations leader. But that staffer was saddled with additional tasks that distracted him from community outreach, according to public documents. The company was on its second outreach leader when it began sending substitutes to the required meetings.
Making matters worse, the contractor provided inaccurate construction maps and outdated information, according to an October report.
The breaking point for some downtown committee members came at a meeting last summer in which Maczko, the city engineer, asked the Walsh representative a question. The outreach substitute, however, admitted he wasn't listening.
"It did not sit well with everyone in the room, and it did not sit well with me," Maczko recalled in a recent interview.
Matt Anfang, a committee member who represents building owners, said he began to question whether Walsh was committed to engaging with the public.
"I reacted by saying, 'If we're not going to have a representative of Walsh that's going to participate in these meetings, I see no reason to continue,'' he said.
Because of low marks from the committees in 2011, Walsh earned just 44 percent of its maximum incentive pay, amounting to $106,798. [Read the most recent summary of comments from the committees here. ] In contrast, the contractor for the Minneapolis end of the project, Ames/McCrossan JV, received 81 percent of its potential bonus.
Anfang said he'd rather see Walsh earn every available penny.
"If they're serious about achieving their incentive pay, then I think the committee would be serious about ensuring they've been paid it," Anfang said.
One sign that Walsh is getting serious is Kimberly Sannes. In November, Walsh brought on Sannes, an engineer and former MnDOT project manager, as its full-time public outreach leader for Central Corridor
At a recent committee meeting, Sannes acknowledged there is room for improvement.
"Walsh feels very strongly about making this work, and making this work better," Sannes told the committee members. "They've heard that what they were doing is not satisfactory to the public, and they very much want that to change."
To Walsh's credit, many observers agree the project began to find its rhythm in the final few months of 2011. Maczko, the city engineer, summed up Walsh's performance with a grade for each quarter:
"I think they went from a 'D,' to 'F,' to 'F,' to 'B,' — and ended up with a 'C' grade overall for the year," he said.
Yet some critics remain skeptical.
Mike Baca, who runs a commercial printing company on University Avenue, said construction crews left several loose ends as they hurried to meet deadline. When workers rebuilt his sidewalk this summer, he said, they splattered concrete on the brickwork of his building and failed to remove the goo from duct tape on his windows. They were simple matters, Baca said, that the project office promised to fix.
Despite repeated phone calls and emails, nothing changed, Baca said.
"The lack of answers, the lack of compassion, and the lack of doing something about it is just terrible," he said. "I don't know if the Met Council has any control over the construction process. How can you let [Walsh] run roughshod over everybody? You're paying them. You're supposed to be representing us."
Baca finally got a response, after a reporter forwarded his complaint to Walsh's public-outreach representative. Within an hour, a crew showed up at Baca's doorstep and tried to scrub the concrete from the bricks.
The project still faces a lawsuit filed by the NAACP and other groups worried about the construction's impact on businesses. Other legal challenges from the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio have been resolved. A judge threw out MPR's suit in November.
The project office is working with Walsh to consider new approaches that would make this year's construction season smoother and lessen the burden on businesses.
One idea is to schedule the work in smaller stretches at a time. Last year, construction on University Avenue was broken into one-mile reaches.
The project is also devoting more staff to monitor pedestrian access. The office has deployed additional field engineers on the ground to help crews resolve issues on the fly.
Met Council project staff are discussing "lessons learned" with community members and project partners, officials say. Walsh is expected to start the construction season fully geared up.
In March, work shifts to eastern University Avenue, filled with small immigrant businesses that might be even more fragile to disruption.
"We know we have to be on our game," said Rovang, the project director. "We're not perfect. Our contractor will be the first to admit they're not perfect. We're trying to work to get better every day, every month."