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Continued: URS faulted in projects elsewhere

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 22, 2012 - 9:53 PM

The global engineering firm that has drawn scrutiny in Minnesota for its role in troubled bridges has also been faulted for the collapse of an elevated expressway in Tampa, Fla., blamed for radioactive leaks at an atomic lab in upstate New York and paid millions in fines and settlements to the federal government.

As it vies for a light-rail contract, URS Corp. has found its record in Minnesota questioned by public officials. The company paid a $52.4 million settlement after the 35W bridge collapse in 2007 and designed a pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis that was shut down for months this year after flaws were discovered.

For the past three weeks, the Metropolitan Council has held off on deciding on the company's bid to design and engineer the Southwest Corridor light-rail line, until a report is released next week determining why cables on the URS-designed Martin Olav Sabo Bridge broke loose in February. A summary of the report, written by consultant Wiss, Janney, Elstner, found this month that the Minneapolis-owned bridge was not designed for the suspension cables to withstand even light winds over time.

Controversies involving URS' work in other states have not gotten the same scrutiny here. Some of those controversies surfaced last year in a transit authority's review when the company bid on a contract for the second phase of the massive Expo light-rail project in Los Angeles -- as did those of a competing bidder, Skanska. That work eventually went to Skanska's joint venture with Rados.

But URS wasn't disqualified because of problems in past work.

"Any construction contractor you're going to give a bid to or award a contract to is going to have something in their past, because construction projects are fraught with uncertainties and things come up that you weren't aware of," said Karen Gorman, acting inspector general of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "Accidents happen with employees. So it's hard to find a contractor who's never had an injury, an allegation, a claim."

But state Rep. Tom Tillberry, DFL-Fridley, has urged Gov. Mark Dayton to reject URS' bid on the Southwest Corridor. In an interview, Tillberry said URS has "a track record that's terrible."

A URS spokesman said in a statement that the firm "has successfully completed many thousands of highly complex projects around the globe. In any complicated engineering environment, issues can arise, but our track record compares favorably against our competitors. Issues don't happen to us very often, but when they do, we address them in a responsible manner. We stand behind our work."  

The San Francisco-based company recorded $9.5 billion in revenues last year and has 56,000 employees around the world. The company has successfully worked on many transit projects in the United States, including in the Bay Area, northern New Jersey, Dallas and Denver.

Crash of Tampa span

But one of its biggest missteps occurred in Florida in 2004, when a URS-designed pier supporting an elevated stretch of road on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa sank 11 feet into the ground. The span came crashing down, injuring two workers.

The Florida Department of Transportation determined that URS did not drill test shafts deep enough into the ground to support the foundation of the expressway. Hundreds of piers designed by URS were reconstructed, and the project was delayed by a year.

The catastrophe led to the resignation of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority's executive director and prompted the agency to sue URS. The company agreed to pay a $75 million settlement in 2009.

It was a larger payout than the one URS agreed to after the 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring more than 140. Victims alleged in a lawsuit against the firm that as a consultant to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, URS had failed to detect the bridge's structural flaws. Without admitting fault, the company settled the case in 2010.

"Who settles for $50 million ... and then you spend $70-some million in Florida?" said Tillberry, who was a friend of one of those killed. "This is just bad news."

As in Minnesota, URS' legal trouble didn't prevent it from winning more contracts in Florida. The company has 71 agreements with the Florida Department of Transportation worth $321 million, according to a spokesman.

Other troubles

Other problems include:

• In 2008, URS subsidiary Washington Savannah River Co. agreed to pay the federal government $2.4 million to settle allegations of fraud. The U.S. Department of Energy said at the time that the settlement was one of the largest of its kind in an investigation by its inspector general.

• In 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded in a report that URS workers felt pressured by their supervisors to ignore safety issues and finish demolition and cleanup work quickly at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York. Those actions led to "uncontrolled spread of radioactive contamination" into the air and Mohawk River, the government found. URS denied that it had pushed employees to overlook safety, but was fined $1.8 million in 2011.

• In January, URS paid $2.3 million to resolve allegations by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley that a senior engineer submitted false and padded invoices to the state Port Authority during its work renovating Logan International Airport. A suit against the company alleged that George Papadopoulos, who served as URS project manager for the airport renovation, submitted false invoices on behalf of the company to the Port Authority, which in turn paid URS the inflated amount. URS then reimbursed Papadopoulos for his personal expenses, according to the attorney general's office. Papadopoulos went to prison after convictions on larceny and fraud.

Steve Kotke, director of public works for Minneapolis, said he was unaware of those cases. His department has spent months and hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to repair the Sabo bridge. Kotke said in an e-mail that the city, which has continued to award contracts to URS, evaluates all bids "on a case by case basis and will continue to do this moving forward."

Met Council spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery declined to make more than a brief statement on whether the cases would affect the council's decision on the light-rail contract, noting that it is "legally obligated to keep certain information confidential."

"Obviously, events like those ... are troubling," Salsbery said in an e-mail.

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

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