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Design-build construction process has its critics

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MnDOT is using a concept known as design-build to rebuild the bridge.  That process means the contractor will start construction on the bridge before the final design is complete.  That differs from the process where a design is completed then contractors bid on the project and the lowest bidder is accepted.  

Minnesota Public Radio news has talked with transportation officials in four states that have used design-build on accelerated transportation projects.  They have all praised it because it speeds up construction.  

But there are some who are skeptical of the design-build process.  Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, is one of them.  Lieder, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, is worried about the number of inspections that will be done on the bridge and who does the inspections.

"Basically, MnDOT has oversight.  They'll have some inspectors on it, but they aren't as physically involved as you normally would with normal inspectors on the job because the contract inspectors would do the physical inspection."

Lieder says design-build allows the contractor, not MnDOT, to do the steel and concrete inspections.  Lieder, a retired county engineer and bridge inspector, says he doesn't think the I-35W bridge will be built poorly. But he says he wants to make sure there are thorough inspections.

MnDOT's oversight role is different under a Design/Build concept, says Jon Chiglo, the project manager for the I-35W rebuild.  But he insists there will be just as many, if not more, inspections on the I-35W bridge.  

"We will have inspectors out there in addition to the contractor having their own independent inspection group.  We will have people reviewing the plan sets also.  I think there's a misperception that MnDOT just turns everything out there to the contractor and comes back in a year and everything is built.  That's not the case," he says.

Chiglo says MnDOT says the design-build concept is the best fit for the I-35W bridge rebuild because it will get it built faster.  He says saving time will reduce overall costs.  The state is losing $400,000 a day in traffic time, Chiglo estimates.

Others aren't so sure that design-build reduces costs.  Bruce Blanning, with the Professional Engineers in California Government, a union representing about 10,000 engineers, architects and land surveyors, has fought efforts to allow contractors to design roads and bridges in that state.  Blanning says his group has found that the few design-build projects in California are more expensive.  The reason, he says, is contractors aren't engaging in competitive bidding.

"When you issue a design-build contract you are saying to a consortium of firms, 'We need a firm price from you but you don't know what you're going to build, because it hasn't been designed yet'".

Blanning says design delays, change orders and other unforeseen things typically drive up the cost of a design-build project. 

A national report says design-build projects don't cost more any more than others.  Keith Molenaar, a professor of construction engineering at the University of Colorado, submitted a report to Congress that said, on average, the 225 design-build projects he studied were no more costly than others.  Molenaar also says design-build projects have been finished 30% more quickly than traditional projects.

"There was significant evidence of time savings and about 30 percent time savings over traditional projects, but we really didn't see additional costs on average."

The resistance to design-build has a lot to do with a change in roles, according to Molenaar.  In particular, he says some of the work that is traditionally done in transportation departments is being shifted to the private sector.  Molenaar says even with its critics,  there is no evidence that it's the wrong thing to do.  

MnDOT has experience on eight design-build projects, including Highway 52 and I-494 between Highway 5 and I-394.