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Companies sued in bridge collapse get new state contracts

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Bent I-35W gusset plate
This photo from June 12, 2003, shows a bent gusset plate on the I-35W bridge that is visible to the eye.
Photo courtesy of NTSB

Two companies the state accuses of negligence that contributed to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse have won a combined $50 million in new highway and bridge contracts since the deadly disaster two years ago.

      Minnesota's continued reliance on engineering consultant URS Corp. and paving company Progressive Contractors Inc. (PCI) is drawing attention amid a slew of lawsuits filed by collapse victims, the state and the contractors themselves.

      Lawyers for the state are trying to recover at least $37 million -- the amount a government settlement fund paid to the 145 people injured and relatives of the 13 killed on Aug. 1, 2007.

      While some legal experts doubt whether transportation officials could have stopped either company from bidding or signing new public contracts, one lawmaker said the deals pose yet another public relations headache for an agency still on the rebound.

      "It looks awfully odd to the public that you have got the state suing them on the one hand for doing a lousy job, and on the other hand you keep giving them business," said Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, who is  involved in crafting the compensation fund. "Either they're capable of doing the job right or not."       

In a final report last fall, federal investigators blamed the collapse on poorly designed connector plates that held together the span's steel beams. But they also cited the weight of construction materials on the bridge as a factor.

"You have the state suing them on the one hand for doing a lousy job, and on the other hand you keep giving them business."

      The Minnesota Department of Transportation declined to comment on its relationship with the vendors because the agency is now involved in litigation with them.

      Last week, the state sued URS, claiming it "violated the applicable engineering standard of care" and failed to warn the state "of the substantially compromised and urgent hazardous condition of the bridge." 

The San Francisco-based company was hired four years before the collapse to inspect the 1960s-era bridge and to suggest ways to shore it up.

      Since the disaster, URS has entered into $6.2 million in contracts with the transportation agency, the most recent coming four days before the state filed its lawsuit. The company, which also declined comment, is involved in at least three bridge projects.

      PCI, based in St. Michael, Minn., was resurfacing the bridge when it broke apart during rush hour. The company and its subsidiaries have taken on more than $42 million in new contract work in the last two years, with seven projects including bridge repair.

     PCI attorney Kevin Hart said that the contracts demonstrate the state agency's trust in the company's work, despite a lawsuit the state filed against PCI in May that takes issue with the way the company staged heavy loads on vulnerable areas of the bridge. 

PCI previously filed a legal claim against the state for failing to keep its workers safe.       

"We don't believe that the state actually believes that we did anything wrong," Hart said, arguing that the state's case was "a knee-jerk reaction to being sued."

      Terry Ward, a MnDOT construction official, defended the continued use of PCI last year when the AP reported that the company was hired to do surfacing work on the replacement 35W bridge.

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

      Neither PCI nor URS are on a list of contractors disqualified from receiving state jobs. That "debarred vendor" list is generally reserved for contractors who engage in criminal activity, violate antitrust laws, perform unsatisfactorily or commit other errors deemed serious and compelling.

      As long as the companies prove they have adequate manpower, experience and insurance, they are positioned to chase new contracts, said Christopher Belter, vice chairman of the construction law committee for DRI, an organization of civil defense attorneys.

      "You couldn't shut someone out of the bidding process without having a legitimate reason, because the state would be subject to a suit if they didn't allow them to bid without justification," Belter said. "This in it of itself wouldn't provide the state with justification given these are based on unproven allegations."