Nearly a year before the general contractor and two state agencies admitted publicly that construction of the St. Croix River bridge was behind schedule, a Hudson, Wis., steel company had warned of delays caused by problems with complex webs of metal framing, the owner said.
LouAnne Berg said that the bridge project's ongoing delays and unworkable designs led to steep labor costs and the financial collapse of her 38-year-old company, J & L Steel and Electrical Services of Hudson.
The company has installed steel framing, known as reinforcement bar or rebar for short, for about 300 bridges in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including the new Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis.
"These are things we told them last September," Berg said of Lunda-Ames Joint Venture, which holds the $323 million general contract on the St. Croix River project.
"Nothing would fit, you couldn't get it in right. We kept saying the plans were bad. … I told them they're going to lose a lot of money on that job unless they find out the problem."
But Brent Wilber, a spokesman for Lunda-Ames, said they didn't learn of any "alleged issues" until February.
"We asked [J & L] to submit the necessary documentation to support those alleged problems they were having, and to date we've never received that information," Wilber said. "Going into it, everyone knew it was a complex bridge. They had the same plan specifications that we had."
Wilber acknowledged problems in fitting steel, but said that "for a job of this size it's been relatively small," less than 1 percent of the total cost.
He said that some of the problems were traced to inaccurate diagrams, and others to work fabricated incorrectly by J & L's suppliers. He added that the number of design changes haven't been unusual for a large bridge.
The four-lane interstate bridge had been scheduled to open in November 2016. But Lunda-Ames and the state transportation agencies in Minnesota and Wisconsin announced Sept. 4 that complications would extend construction into 2017.
Project manager Michael Beer said then that fusing the dense network of rebar was taking longer than expected. He also cited the complicated nature of the tension cables that hold concrete segments together.
The learning curve
Berg pulled her workers off the job in April, she said, after Steel had lost more than $2.5 million trying to meet Lunda-Ames' demands to stay on schedule. She said Lunda-Ames terminated the $64 million J & L contract in May.
"I felt that we really were not listened to, and now they're going to the state saying the exact same things," Berg said of her conversations with Lunda-Ames. "I don't know if it's the design, the engineering or the drawings we were given, but it was very difficult to get any work done."
Lunda-Ames is now overseeing the steel work, Wilber said.
"MnDOT and Lunda-Ames aren't pointing fingers at each other. We're just trying to figure out the best way to get the project done," he said. "If a conflict comes up, we've now worked through it, following the specifications."
Beer, a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) engineer who heads the overall project, said it was Lunda-Ames' responsibility to help subcontractors deal with "complexities and the learning curve" related to the bridge's unique cable-stayed design.
He said that he became aware of J & L Steel's concerns in April, and that MnDOT had been working with Lunda-Ames to "make up time" on construction until it became apparent the bridge wouldn't open in 2016.
"Once we came to that realization, we wanted to let the public know and not hold onto a false sense of a completion date that was no longer achievable," Beer said. "We haven't had a discussion of the consequences of the contractor not meeting the deadline."
Lunda-Ames would have earned a $3.5 million incentive for a 2016 opening, he said.
'It's a design problem'
MnDOT and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation have estimated that the total project — the bridge and its approach highways on both sides of the river — could reach a cost of $676 million. That includes money for historic preservation and environmental work to safeguard the St. Croix River.
Jon Reger, LouAnne Berg's son and a manager at J & L Steel, said the company had warned Lunda-Ames that problems in assembling the webs of rebar were leading to steep overruns.
"We told them we're losing so much money in the crossbeams," he said, referring to the structures that link the piers together. "We were told it's a people problem and we said no, it's a design problem."
Reger and Berg said that J & L lost millions of dollars in overtime wages and benefits because Lunda-Ames wanted more workers, and faster work.
J & L tried to comply, they said, but tight spaces had room for only a few ironworkers at a time. Moreover, they had to remove steel and start over again because of frequent design changes. One supervisor reported replacing steel six times in a single location.
Nate O'Reilly, a business agent for Ironworkers Local 512 in St. Paul, said Lunda-Ames hasn't asked for more workers on the site. About 150 union ironworkers are there now, he said, including some who had worked for J & L.
The company didn't provide written proof of design problems because Berg said she had never done that on a job and wasn't sure how. In addition, she said, numerous face-to-face meetings were held with Lunda-Ames, some with Wilber present, to discuss J & L's concerns.
Wilber said he couldn't comment on how much work was redone until he sees documentation from J & L. Berg's response was that Lunda-Ames was "just trying to blame somebody else."
J & L Steel will go out of business after it completes work on its last job, the Interstate 90 bridge over the Mississippi River at La Crosse, Wis., Berg said. Its electrical division, which Reger heads, also is up for sale.
"We didn't want to leave," Reger said about walking off the St. Croix job. "We knew the repercussions were going to be big. We said there's no way they'll finish this job on time and they'll have to admit it."
MnDOT's Beer said he had no concerns about the quality of J & L's work.
"J & L Steel is a great company that did a lot of work for MnDOT, did a lot of successful work, so it's unfortunate that this project didn't turn out like everyone had hoped in respect to them," he said.