Lawmakers voice concerns about bridge project's haste

  • Article by: BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2007 - 9:42 PM

State officials defended fast-track plan, but legislators said MnDOT is rushing ahead too quickly.

State transportation officials were repeatedly told by DFL legislators Wednesday to put the brakes on their fast-track plans to replace the collapsed I-35W bridge and concentrate instead on making sure the new bridge is safe and meets the needs of Minnesotans for decades to come.

"I'm going to need a lot of assurances that building it fast equals building it right," said Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope. "And I'm not there yet."

She was one of three dozen members of the Joint House and Senate Transportation Committee who grilled three top officials of the Minnesota Department of Transportation Wednesday. After two hours so many legislators still had questions that the hearing was recessed until next week.

"We all have a common goal here, to replace this bridge," said Khani Sahebjam, MnDOT's Metro District engineer. "The question we have is how quickly."

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, shot back: "You say how fast, but I don't think that's the question. Will this bridge meet the needs of the community 100 years from now? My experience is that once you begin to pour concrete, it's hard to make changes."

In prepared remarks delivered by an aide, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, DFL-St. Paul, was even more pointed: "[M]any people have expressed to me their extreme dismay at the frenzied rush to replace the bridge. A tragedy of this magnitude demands that we take a collective breath and assess the shortcomings of the old structure and the challenges of our future transportation needs. ... Unfortunately, it appears haste is governing how we move forward on planning and construction."

Design-build plan questioned

Legislators also expressed skepticism about the so-called design-build track the project is on, wariness that transportation officials appear reluctant to include light rail in the bridge's design and concern that the state could be left holding the bag if $250 million in promised federal aid doesn't come through or falls short of the eventual cost.

MnDOT Deputy Commissioner Lisa Freese said that improvements above and beyond replacing the old bridge could lead to lengthy environmental reviews.

"When you start to add some of these things, it could draw out the process, not a couple of months, but a couple of years," she said.

Separately Wednesday, members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak sent a letter to President Bush asking him to submit an emergency supplemental appropriations request for the $250 million.

Abbe McKenzie, MnDOT's director of office investment management, told the legislators that $55 million of the $250 million already is available, but that the final cost of the bridge could rise to $300 million if the federal money doesn't arrive "in a timely manner." She pointed out that comparable emergency grants made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina took as long as a year to arrive.

Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184

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