The long-troubled east metro project might lose another construction season, officials say.
Plagued by a history of delays, design flaws and cost overruns, the Wakota Bridge has now been placed on a possible hit list of projects that may be temporarily shelved to free up funds for reconstruction of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge.
The opening of the east-bound Wakota Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River between South St. Paul and Newport, already had been delayed until 2009 while the project was being rebid.
Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson, who represents the district around the bridge, said the result of further delay might be the loss "of a whole construction season."
For now, engineers have restriped the new westbound bridge, cramming six lanes of traffic onto a bridge designed for five.
Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, said on Monday that she was surprised to learn the bridge might be delayed again, given its troubled past.
The $250 million Wakota Bridge Project, which included separate east and west bridges, has been in the making since 2002, launched to replace the aging 1959 span, with completion for both east and westbound bridges scheduled for 2007.
The westbound bridge, which was supposed to open first, was found to have numerous hairline cracks in the concrete support sections for the deck. Design flaws were blamed, and the contractor assumed responsibility for the $15 million retrofit that delayed the bridge's opening by a year. More delays and cost overruns caused Minnesota Department of Transportation officials to dump the contractor last year and send the project out for rebidding.
The eastbound bridge, once projected to cost $25 million, is now expected to cost double that. MnDOT has not selected a replacement contractor yet, but is projecting completion by 2009.
Saltzman said local officials were told Friday by MnDOT engineers that the project might be delayed.
MnDOT spokesman Bob McFarlin confirmed Monday that the bridge was under consideration, "but no more than any other project planned for fiscal 2008."
Characterizing the fuss as "much ado about nothing," McFarlin said the bridge project -- although one of the largest projects planned for 2008 -- was one of more than 200 projects across the state that might face delays.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said that the "40,000-plus motorists who try to go through that corridor twice a day may have a different opinion of the criticality of that bridge."
Hearings are planned
Murphy, who Monday requested that MnDOT disclose its contracts and subcontracts on the I-35W bridge project, said the lack of timely information from the department is "intolerable."
Murphy has said he will call hearings next week to begin an accounting of the department. "We'll get to the bottom of this if we have haul them in under threat of subpoena," he said. "I want to find out how bad the problem is at MnDOT."
Murphy said that while the department may try to blame any project delays on the state, "the fact is they don't have enough funds and they refuse to acknowledge that."
MnDOT is awaiting approval from the Legislative Advisory Commission, made up of top legislative leaders, to begin the I-35W project, even though Congress has yet to appropriate the full $250 million in needed federal funds. The bridge amendment is caught in a transportation bill that President Bush has threatened to veto.
Murphy on Monday predicted that the Advisory Committee will withhold its approval when it meets next Monday.
The magnitude of the I-35W project, he said, is beyond the scope of such a small commission.
"Less than three weeks ago the lieutenant governor said they didn't need legislative help," Murphy said, referring to Carol Molnau, who also serves as transportation commissioner. Now, he said, "they're telling us projects will be delayed or canceled unless they get this approval. The fact is, they need new revenue and we need a special session on transportation to deal with this."
Washington County Engineer Don Thiesen said that if the rebid of the eastbound Wakota Bridge slipped by a couple of months, "we would work like the dickens" to keep the scheduled opening date of 2009.
"Can we accomplish that?" he said. "I don't know. There is no doubt there is frustration in Washington County and Dakota County. It's time to get this bridge done."
McFarlin said that if the department's request is denied, "our message is very simple. We will have to move forward at some time in the near future with decisions to defer projects."
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