Firm tied to old Mpls. bridge helps erect new span

The final span
On Saturday the final span of the northbound lane of the new 35W bridge was moved into place. The southbound lane will be completed this week. Bridge work is running ahead of schedule.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

(AP) - The road construction company facing scrutiny and possible lawsuits over its role in the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge holds one of the biggest subcontracts on the replacement.

Progressive Contractors Inc. will make nearly $3.6 million for paving and barrier work on the Mississippi River bridge project, according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.

That's 50 percent more than it was due for tearing up concrete and putting in a fresh road layer on the previous I-35W bridge -- a job only partially completed when tragedy struck on Aug. 1.

Piles of sand
Hundres of tons of sand and construction equipment on the Interstate 35W bridge contributed to its collapse last year, according to the NTSB.
Image courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board

Twelve motorists and one of the company's workers were killed when the steel bridge broke apart during rush hour. Dozens more people were injured.

Federal investigators are still working on a final report on the bridge collapse. They have said heavy loads of construction materials PCI had staged probably contributed, but they have also cited a design flaw in some of the bridge's gusset plates beneath those loads.

The new bridge is being built under a $234 million contract in a joint venture by Flatiron Constructors of Longmont, Colo., and Manson Construction of Seattle. The builders are on pace to finish in mid-September, three months ahead of schedule.

Records show Flatiron-Manson has parceled out $36.3 million of its work through 38 subcontracts as of Tuesday. PCI's is the sixth-largest.

St. Michael, Minn.-based PCI won the job through a competitive bid, company president Mike McGray said. The contract covers paving on the approach lanes on either end of the 504-foot suspended portion of the bridge.

Bridge deck
A collapsed portion of the I-35W bridge deck.
National Transportation Safety Board

"We pursued it just as we do any other project as it applies to the work that we do," McGray said. "It's business as usual, as we've been doing for over 35 years."

Bob Edwards, a Flatiron-Manson assistant project manager, said PCI was selected over two other paving companies on the basis of price and qualifications.

"They had a good reputation for getting in and getting the job done," Edwards said.

Although Minnesota Department of Transportation chief Tom Sorel has questioned PCI's staging of materials on the failed bridge, agency and Flatiron officials said the company's work on the old bridge didn't figure in the bid selection.

MnDOT had the power to veto PCI's inclusion -- or that of any other subcontractor.

"I certainly do hope [PSI] prospers and makes money. They'll be in a better position to compensate some of the victims."

Terry Ward, MnDOT's deputy project manager for construction, said PCI isn't on a state list of contractors barred from public projects. The company, Ward said, is a known entity that MnDOT is "more than happy" to have involved.

"They are qualified to bid work. They are qualified to sub-bid work," Ward said Wednesday. "There hasn't been any direction given to us that they are not capable or qualified at all."

Minneapolis attorney James Schwebel, who is representing a group of collapse victims, said he doesn't begrudge PCI for seeking out the contract.

"I certainly do hope they do prosper and make money. They'll be in a better position to compensate some of the victims. Whenever the lawsuits are filed they're certainly going to be at the party," Schwebel said. "We certainly don't want them to file bankruptcy."

The National Transportation Safety Board has closely examined the company's bridge project as it attempts to settle on a collapse cause. Investigators have pinpointed undersized gusset plates -- key beam connectors on the truss bridge -- as a "critical factor" in the failure of the 40-year-old structure.

But an internal NTSB memo notes that "staff also believes that the loads placed on the bridge on the day of the accident played a role in the collapse."

Engineers involved in the investigation calculated that 577,235 pounds of construction materials and equipment were staged above the most vulnerable gussets. A final NTSB report is expected this fall.

A report from state occupational safety investigators said PCI's employees were working near the center of the bridge during the overlay project, worth $2.4 million to the company. They were sandblasting, moving concrete and using other machinery when the bridge collapsed.

One worker who was on a skid steer, Greg Jolstad, plunged into the river and was killed. Others had treatable injuries.

No safety citations were issued because all workers were wearing proper gear and a rescue boat was located nearby in case of emergency, investigators concluded.

PCI and MnDOT have had mixed relations since the collapse.

In January, PCI's lawyers filed paperwork preserving the company's right to sue the state on workplace safety and breach of contract grounds. McGray said no final decision on a lawsuit has been made.

While defending his agency's pre-collapse maintenance decisions to a legislative panel last month, Sorel, Minnesota's transportation commissioner, gave an unflattering appraisal of PCI's actions on the bridge.

"An overlay is a repair that does not generate large loads on the bridge," Sorel wrote in a letter to the Joint Legislative Committee on the I-35W Bridge Collapse. "The designer would not have imagined the contractor would stockpile all the material on the bridge. That practice is not typical."

Sen. Kathy Saltzman, a committee member who has closely tracked the collapse investigation and the reconstruction, said MnDOT or consultants it had hired to study the bridge's structural flaws should have raised red flags about PCI's construction load at the time.

"If what they were doing was unusual, then why was it not noted by the onsite supervisor?" asked Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury. "Why wasn't it pointed out to them?"

Conn Abnee, executive director of the National Steel Bridge Alliance, said it's difficult to say who's right. General procedures for construction are refined to meet the needs of a particular bridge.

"Every bridge of that magnitude is a specialty item," said Abnee, a mechanical engineer by training.

In April, MnDOT issued new guidelines restricting the storage of materials and the weight allowed on a bridge to levels similar to traffic loads routinely expected on a bridge.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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