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Despite Dayton's concerns, URS up for Southwest light rail contract

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Metro Light Rail
A light rail train pulls into the Target Field station as a commuter walks by Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012. This station is planned to connect with the Southwest Corridor LRT, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

The Metropolitan Council is considering URS Corp., a firm that consulted on the collapsed I-35W bridge, for work on the proposed Southwest light rail project linking Eden Prairie to Minneapolis.

Gov. Mark Dayton has repeatedly expressed concerns about the state doing business with the San Francisco-based company. The I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 people. 

URS is one of two companies the Met Council is considering for a $100 million, six-year engineering contract. The line has a total price tag of $1.25 billion. The other company under consideration is Los Angeles-based AECOM. 

At a recent press conference, Dayton said while he respects the Met Council's authority to negotiate Southwest contracts, he'll continue to voice his concerns over the company's safety record. 

"I want them to make sure they've done the absolute due diligence so that the people of Minnesota are going to have the best-possible light rail line and a totally safe one," Dayton said.

URS wasn't involved in the design or building of the 35W bridge. And it wasn't involved in any of the later construction, including the resurfacing work that was under way when the bridge fell. 

Still, the company agreed to pay $52.4 million to settle lawsuits related to the collapse.

ANALYST: "THEY ARE AN EXCELLENT COMPANY"

URS map
This map shows LRT projects URS Corp. has worked on.
URS Corp.

URS is one of the largest engineering, design and construction firms in the world. The company started in 1951, and has more than 46,000 employees in nearly 50 countries. The company has worked on a number of iconic American projects, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam.

"They are strong in transportation. They are strong in North America," said Avram Fisher, a New York-based securities analyst who follows URS at BMO Capital Markets. Fisher said the company is highly respected in the industry for a long list of successful light rail and other infrastructure projects. 

"I've met their management team several times and the people who run certain businesses and I've met a lot of their engineers over the years and it's a very well-run company," Fisher said.

Fisher said he's surprised the company has been the subject of continued controversy in Minnesota. 

"It seems like a very good company has been thrust into this role of being, because of this prior accident and tragedy on the I-35 [bridge], into being a magnet for concern about public spending," he said.  

The I-35W bridge wasn't the company's first project in Minnesota. URS has worked in the state for decades, including on another project with safety issues — the Sabo bridge. URS Corp. consulted on the design of the cable-stayed bike and pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis. 

That span was recently shut down after a pair of cables failed. The company also did preliminary engineering, project management and construction oversight work on the Hiawatha Light Rail line. 

OTHER CUSTOMERS SATISFIED

URS officials declined an interview request with MPR News for this story. But in a written statement, a spokesman said the company's experience with other mass transit projects makes it well qualified to do Southwest LRT.   

"URS has unparalleled experience in designing mass transit projects across the country and around the world, including our work on the Hiawatha Light Rail Line.  We believe the team we have assembled to support the Southwest Light Rail Transit Line project — which consists of over 15 local professional services firms — is uniquely qualified," the statement read.

Mass transit agencies in two other cities — Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Fort Worth Transit Authority — told MPR News they were satisfied with URS' performance on challenging rail projects. 

The company reported revenues of $9.55 billion in 2011. That puts it in the top five on the Engineering News Record's list of largest transportation design firms.

Gary Tulacz, senior editor at Engineering News Record Magazine, said the high ranking is a distinction in a highly fragmented industry — even though the list tracks revenues, not quality.

"There is no Microsoft in the construction industry. There is no General Motors," Tulacz said. "There are just hundreds of thousands of companies in the construction industry, everybody everywhere from the person with the pickup truck putting in drywall on weekends to companies that work worldwide and do billions of dollars worth of business."

And, he said, URS is one of the few non-residential construction companies that are publicly held. 

STALLED AT CAPITOL

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton appears at a news conference Friday, March 23, 2012, about the St. Croix Crossing project in Stillwater, Minn. At the news conference, Dayton also expressed concerns about URS Corp, a San Francisco-based company that consulted on the I-35W bridge before it collapsed in 2007. URS Corp. is under consideration for a $100 million, six-year engineering contract to build the Southwest light rail project.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Despite Dayton's concerns over URS, the Southwest LRT project is one of his top bonding priorities this year. The DFL governor wants the state to borrow $25 million for the line.

But for now, the project remains stalled at the Capitol — both the House and Senate failed to include the light rail line in their bonding bills. 

Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said he's less worried about URS than he is about the cost of building more light rail.

"I'm more concerned with the whole thing that the Met Council is even moving ahead with this multi-billion dollar project without identifying how we are going to pay for the subsidies to keep it operating once we build it," Beard said.

An environmental study on the 15-mile Southwest LRT is under way. The project has federal permission to begin preliminary engineering. 

Met Council officials say if lawmakers don't authorize money for the line this session, Minnesota could lose critical federal matching funds. 

If the Southwest LRT is funded this session, construction on the Southwest light rail could begin in 2014, and the line would open as early as 2017.