The new Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis has begun to look like a real bridge -- big and boring but built to last. The only people to have "crossed" it so far have been wearing hard hats, but they have all made it across safely.
Hold the trumpets.
In 24 days, we will observe the first anniversary of the collapse of the old bridge, at a toll of 13 dead, more than 100 injured and the reputation of a state shattered. So the excited progress reports on each new chunk of precast concrete hoisted into place seem off-key to me. Building bridges isn't unheard of, you know. We used to do it all the time.
And they used to stay up.
The new $234 million bridge will not be open by the anniversary of the collapse of its predecessor. But with a hurry-up schedule intended to put the horrors of the old bridge in the past as fast as possible, plus piles of overtime pay and as much as $27 million in bonuses to be made, it will be ready soon. That's an amazing feat.
And a very expensive one.
Charley McCrossan, the old construction man who has been building roads in this state for 52 years, estimates the bridge could mean unprecedented profits for Flatiron Constructors, the Colorado company -- owned by a German firm -- picked by the state to fast-track the bridge.
Most highway projects, says the 82-year-old, earn 3 or 4 percent profit for contractors. At 4 percent of $234 million, Flatiron would profit only by $8 million or $9 million.
"The way things are going, I figure they're gonna walk away with $60 or $80 million profit," says McCrossan. "That's insane. I've never seen this kind of thing before. Of course, Flatiron has higher expenses than a Minnesota company -- they'll have to charter a 757 to fly the money back to Germany."
McCrossan's company (C.S. McCrossan Inc.) initiated a lawsuit to try to void the Flatiron contract (he says he is doing it on behalf of taxpayers, not his firm). The way the old contractor sees it, the new bridge is a concrete gold mine.
Yes, McCrossan is still mad that his Maple Grove firm, which bid $57 million less than Flatiron, didn't get the job. But at this point, he says, he's just trying to make the state do right by the taxpayers.
"We're backing up the citizens," he says. "We're asking the judge to void the contract and return the excess profits."
Whether Charley McCrossan prevails, the lesson is clear: Politicians are quicker to spend money to cover their embarrassment than to ensure public safety. So as the anniversary of the collapse approaches, let's recall just how cheap we used to be, before 13 died on Aug. 1, 2007. How cheap were we?
As cheap as the cost of dragging a chain across a roadway.
When engineers agreed the old bridge needed fixing, the Minnesota Department of Transportation chose the cheapest alternative, resurfacing the bridge instead of reinforcing it or replacing it. Here's the amazing part: After choosing the cheapest plan, MnDOT saved $40,000 more by skipping a ground-penetrating radar examination of the deck that had been recommended to make sure the deck had not deteriorated further since it was last examined in 1999.
The state decided to skip radar and use an ancient method: Dragging a chain across the bridge deck.
You drag a chain across a surface, listening for thumps that might indicate hollow spots below. The process is highly subjective and only as good as the chain dragger's ear. In other words, who knows?
"It's pretty primitive," says Charley McCrossan.
It can work. But not as well as radar. And not reliably enough on a fracture-critical bridge with lives at stake.
Think about that, the next time you see a report on the construction of a new bridge that will cost $234 million, plus bonuses: They dragged a chain across the old bridge.
As it turned out, dragging that chain failed to detect that the 35W bridge deck had deteriorated substantially since 1999. The deck resurfacing needed more stripping away of the old roadway than anticipated. On the day of the collapse, there was 200 tons of sand and gravel on the bridge, plus another 100 tons of construction equipment.
"We should have had Carnac the Magnificent check the bridge," said state Sen. Kathy Saltzman, a DFLer from Woodbury who was referring to the all-seeing Johnny Carson late-night TV character. "He might have done a better job."
Saltzman points out that the state is spending $550,000 for a public relations agency to trumpet the great news about the new bridge. Next to that, $40,000 is small potatoes. But it might have bought a radar exam that might have found a bridge in deep trouble.
First, we dragged a chain to save money.
Then, we dragged the river.
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