Construction managers say they're three months ahead of schedule and are aiming to finish the new bridge by Sept. 15.
Construction of the new Interstate 35W bridge is moving so swiftly that its builders say they expect to open it by mid-September instead of late December. Their reward will be an extra $20 million in federal funds.
During a weekly public tour of the construction site Saturday, managers for Flatiron Constructors said the bridge is 65 percent complete and that the hanging of concrete segments over the river could begin as soon as May 14 or 15 -- three months earlier than originally scheduled.
Flatiron's $234 million contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation calls for the bridge to be completed by Dec. 24, but it includes a $200,000-a-day incentive for each day that the bridge is finished before then, up to 100 days. Sept. 15 would be 100 days early, and "we fully intend to make that," Peter Sanderson, Flatiron's manager for the project, said Saturday.
That puts the opening within spitting distance of the Republican National Convention, which runs Sept. 1-4 in St. Paul. But Kevin Gutknecht, a MnDOT spokesman, said the convention is playing no role in the timetable.
"We've received absolutely no instruction, guidance or any kind of pressure from anyone, anywhere, about the Republican National Convention," he said Saturday. "The priority on this project is safety and quality."
The contract also pays the builders $7 million if they make the original Dec. 24 deadline without asking for additional money to complete the work. The incentives would be paid with federal funds, Gutknecht said.
Sanderson said that they'd been confident since the beginning that they could build at this speed, and that the relatively snowless winter had helped.
MnDOT, which has primarily an oversight role, is more reserved about when the bridge will be complete.
"We are certainly ahead of schedule, there's no question about that, but there's still a lot of work to be done," Gutknecht said. "MnDOT's not at a point where it's ready to say 'yeah, we're going to get done way early.'"
Last September, a joint venture consisting of Colorado-based Flatiron and Manson Construction was awarded a $234 million contract to replace the bridge. The total cost of the project -- including removal of the bridge that collapsed Aug. 1, killing 13 people -- has been put at nearly $400 million. The federal government is picking up nearly all of the cost.
Contract went to high bidder
Flatiron-Manson was awarded the project under a MnDOT formula taking into account construction costs, time to completion and factors such as aesthetics and public-relations efforts. At the time of the award in September, critics assailed the agency for choosing the most expensive contract and the longest construction time
Now, if the bridge is finished in 337 days instead of the 437 in Flatiron's proposal, the construction period will be shorter than any that were proposed -- but will widen the cost gap.
One of the four bidders, Maple Grove-based C.S. McCrossan, offered to build a steel bridge in 367 days at a cost of $177 million. The second-shortest time was proposed by the team of Ames/Lunda, also based in the Midwest, which proposed 392 days for $178 million. The fourth bidder, Walsh/American bridge, proposed the same time frame as Flatiron, 437 days, but a lower cost, $219 million.
MnDOT opposes new limit
Under a bill introduced in the Legislature in response to the 35W contract, a design-build project costing more than $10 million couldn't be awarded to a company whose bid is 120 percent more than the lowest competing bid. MnDOT opposes the bill, which is still being considered at the Capitol.
An earlier bridge opening would be welcomed by commuters and businesses affected by the collapse and its detours. State officials said last fall that the bridge closure is costing Minnesotans $400,000 a day in travel-related expenses alone. The $200,000 daily incentive was arrived at by dividing that number in half.
Gutknecht says the estimate of $400,000 a day, which was based on drive times and fuel costs, is a minimum. "When we figured it out,'' he said, "fuel was quite a bit cheaper."
Jim Foti • 612-673-4491