Judge hears arguments on bridge bids

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 25, 2007 - 9:29 AM

A suit alleges that the bidding process was rigged; the state calls it sour grapes.

With the timetable for a new Interstate 35W bridge in the balance, lawyers on Wednesday defended the state's decision to hire a Colorado contractor to build the span and brushed away arguments the process was hasty and illegal.

Two taxpayers who filed suit against the Minnesota Department of Transportation asked a Ramsey County judge to halt the bridge's construction, at least temporarily, arguing that Flatiron Constructors of Colorado was allowed to bend the bidding process in ways that gave it an unfair advantage.

Ramsey County District Judge Edward Cleary, who listened to more than two hours of legal arguments, is expected to issue a ruling next week.

"All you have again are two losing bidders who are unhappy," said Thomas Vollbrecht, a lawyer for Flatiron. He said the two taxpayers, including Wendell Phillippi, a former chairman of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, were representing the construction firms that lost the $234 million project to Flatiron.

The taxpayers' primary lawyer, Dean Thomson, said MnDOT closely orchestrated the bid award to Flatiron to limit any challenges. When two unsuccessful bidders filed a formal protest, he said, MnDOT kept secret key details on how a technical committee had scored the bridge proposals. Then, on the same day the state Department of Administration denied the bid protest, Thomson said MnDOT released the details, quickly signed a contract with Flatiron and then had the company unveil the bridge design.

MnDOT, Thomson added, ignored advice from the Department of Administration that the scoring details be released early so the public could review them before a contract was signed.

"This was a train that had left the station and departed, in MnDOT's mind," he said.

Since Flatiron's selection in mid-September, construction industry officials have questioned why the company was chosen even though its bid was $57 million more than the lowest bid and would take 70 days longer than the bid proposing the shortest timetable. Flatiron, poised to begin construction, has promised to complete the bridge by Christmas Eve 2008.

In an affidavit filed as part of the case, MnDOT project manager Jon Chiglo said a one-week delay in the start of construction would cost $3 million. A four-week delay, he said, would cost $10.6 million.

"If there's too much of a delay ... work that was going to be done now will be pushed back until '08, and that will mean [the completion will be] back into '09," said Richard Varco Jr., an attorney representing MnDOT. He denied MnDOT had departed from normal procedure in awarding Flatiron the contract.

Thomson said Flatiron, unlike the unsuccessful bidders, was allowed to spread its bridge design onto an adjoining right-of-way land parcel, even though the other bidders had been told that was not permissible.

But Thomson also acknowledged that Phillippi, one of the taxpayers filing the lawsuit, was involved as a subcontractor on the bridge project. "Our reply to that is, so what?" he said. "That doesn't mean, as a taxpayer, he's not offended by what happened here. He is."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

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