URS, under fire for 35W bridge, is up for light-rail contract

The engineering firm paid $52.4 million to settle a suit arising from the collapse of the I-35W bridge.

A company criticized for its work on the old Interstate 35W bridge before it collapsed may win a $100 million contract to build the proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line.

The Metropolitan Council has URS Corp. of San Francisco on a short list for engineering work on the light-rail line that would run from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

URS was a consultant to the state on the I-35W bridge before it collapsed in 2007, and it paid $52.4 million in 2010 to settle a lawsuit brought for killed and injured motorists.

The involvement of URS has drawn the attention of Gov. Mark Dayton, who as a gubernatorial candidate vowed to issue an executive order barring the firm from state contracts, at least until lawsuits were settled.

Dayton's spokesperson Katharine Tinucci said Friday that the Met Council on its own reached a tentative agreement with URS.

Met Council Chair Sue Haigh declined to confirm such an agreement, but said Dayton hasn't expressed concerns about URS getting the contract.

Tinucci disagreed.

"The governor has very strong concerns about the state doing business with URS, and has expressed those concerns to Sue Haigh as well," Tinucci said. Dayton appointed Haigh and others to the Met Council.

Later Friday, Haigh acknowledged through Met Council spokesperson Meredith Salsbery that Dayton had recently expressed concerns about URS.

One of largest contracts

The contract at issue would involve preliminary and final engineering work over six years at a cost estimated at $90 million to $100 million. It will be one of the largest contracts in a $1.25 billion project.

URS and AECOM of Los Angeles are the only firms competing for the work. AECOM has done similar work on the Central Corridor light-rail project under construction between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Unlike contracts for heavy construction work, engineering contracts need not go to the lowest bidder, but are awarded after an evaluation to determine the best proposal and negotiations over price.

Haigh declined to say where evaluations and negotiations by her agency staff stood. She defended the inclusion of URS in the selection process.

"Both of these proposers are the two largest civil engineering, light-rail designing firms in the country," she said. "They're both qualified vendors under federal and state law."

"These are very complex negotiations," she said. "It's a very complex contract."

Surprise for stakeholders

The possible selection of URS came as a surprise Friday to Metropolitan Council members specializing in transportation, who say they are unsure who is vying for the work.

"They won't tell us," said Met Council member James Brimeyer, referring to agency staff. "I've asked about it and they say they're in the process of evaluation and I say, 'OK, fine.'"

While the evaluations and negotiations are non-public, the names of the firms that submitted proposals are public under state law.

Brimeyer is from St. Louis Park, one community where the Southwest line would run, and sits on the Met Council's transportation committee. He said he expected to be told the names of the competing firms at a March 26 meeting and was "guessing" the committee would make a recommendation.

Skeptical lawmaker

The possible selection of URS raised eyebrows of Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, a critic of the project.

"I'd certainly look sideways at that thing," said Beard, chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Beard said he was more concerned with the company's role in designing the Sabo pedestrian bridge, where part of the suspension system failed recently, than with the 2007 35W bridge collapse.

"I would certainly have them in for a long talk: What's going on over there and what have you learned from this and what's changed?" he said.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the ranking DFLer on the Senate Transportation Committee, said the company's performance related to the I-35W bridge was "concerning," but he would not try to block it from getting the contract.

"We could probably point to dozens of instances where URS has been really successful in delivering really good infrastructure projects," Dibble said. "I certainly wouldn't want to micromanage the Met Council and say they can't hire URS."

While expressing concerns, the governor left decisions on awarding the contract to the Met Council, his spokesperson said.

"The governor had no involvement in the bidding process, and was made aware only after the tentative agreement had been reached with Met Council and URS," Tinucci said.

Candidate Dayton took a harder line in July 2010, about two months before the settlement of the 35W lawsuit. The suit included filings that showed that one former URS engineer said he was concerned that another engineer was "trying a little too hard" to tell the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) that the bridge was safe.

"I'm just outraged," said Dayton at the time. "It's terribly wrong that contracts would continue to be awarded at taxpayers expense to [the] firm."

Company's response

URS stressed that it wasn't involved in the design of the 35W bridge, only as a consultant to MnDOT. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the collapse was caused by a design flaw compounded by increased weight over the years.

"We believe the team we have assembled to support the Southwest light-rail transit line project -- which consists of over 15 local professional services firms -- is uniquely qualified," said URS spokesman Ronald Low. "We strongly disagree with the issues that were raised."

'Unparalleled experience'

He said the company has "unparalleled experience ... in designing mass transit projects around the country," including work on the Hiawatha light rail.

The involvement of URS on Southwest surfaces as the Legislature prepares to take up Dayton's proposal to borrow $25 million to pay for engineering work on the Southwest Corridor. The proposal is part of the governor's $775 million public works proposal.

Beard's committee Friday released a list of tentatively approved public works projects and the Southwest corridor wasn't among them. But Haigh expressed confidence the $25 million would prevail during late session negotiations.

"That's disappointing, but clearly the governor is a strong supporter of Southwest," Haigh said.

pdoyle@startribune.com 612-673-4504 mkaszuba@startribune.com 651-925-5045

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