A truck with a "Git-R-Done'' window sticker was parked next to the new Interstate 35W bridge last Wednesday. Nearby, crews worked feverishly to finish construction so that the bridge would be able to carry traffic this week for the first time since that horrible day in August 2007.
A brief tour of the site summoned back images that will trouble Minnesotans for decades. On one of the darkest days in state history, most of us reached for cell phones or watched in horror as TV reports delivered the unthinkable news that an interstate bridge had collapsed into the Mississippi. Thirteen people died, dozens were injured, and countless lives were forever altered. It never should have happened anywhere in America, but the collapse seemed even more shocking in Minnesota, where Midwestern pride in doing things right runs deep.
Replacing the bridge is a major step in the healing process, though it does not bring back the lost mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. Still, the hundreds of construction workers and transportation department staffers who sweated 24/7 to build the new bridge deserve the community's deep thanks. What they have accomplished in 10 months is nothing short of amazing.
Credit also is due state officials who have resisted the temptation to make the reopening a grand celebration. Minnesota should respectfully recognize the achievement, remember those who were lost and consider the lessons learned.
One of those lessons is that, in the understandable rush to get the bridge built quickly, taxpayers paid a premium price for what appears to be a high-quality product. Was it too much? The Minnesota Department of Transportation says absolutely not. The losing bidders for the job, though, maintain that millions of federal dollars were squandered when a bid from a team led by Flatiron Construction won out over three less expensive proposals.
Flatiron bid $234 million to build the bridge by Dec. 24 of this year -- the latest completion date proposed by any of the four contractors. The lowest bidder, C.S. McCrossan, bid $177 million, with an estimated completion date of Oct. 15. If the team led by Flatiron finishes the bridge on Monday as planned, it stands to receive an early completion bonus of $27 million, for a total price tag of $261 million. If McCrossan had been selected and had completed the bridge on the same date, its bonus would have been $13 million, for a total of $190 million. Is the new bridge worth that much more than the project McCrossan would have built? That's the $71 million question.
MnDOT officials say Flatiron's proposal was far superior to the other three bids, based on a scoring system that included design, aesthetics and other factors besides price and schedule. McCrossan officials contend that the scoring system was flawed and that MnDOT favored Flatiron from the outset.
Such bidding disputes are not unusual with major construction projects, but rarely are the numbers so eye-catching. With Carol Molnau at the helm, MnDOT did an inadequate job explaining what went into the decision immediately after the contract was awarded. Today officials say taxpayers are paying a fair price, given the quality of the bridge and the early completion date.
It's unlikely MnDOT will ever face another bid process that will be scrutinized to this extent, or one in which more dollars are at stake. If it does, transparency should join the list of goals, along with quality, cost-effectiveness and -- to borrow from a window sticker -- getting the job done.
The opening of the bridge gives us a chance to reprise a recommendation made on this page on the one-year anniversary of the collapse. We propose that state leaders take the steps necessary to name the new span the 35W Memorial Bridge, in hopes that those who cross it will remember what happened on Aug. 1, 2007.