In a move that could end up costing millions of dollars, the agency overseeing the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line on Wednesday scrapped plans to award a major contract to a firm linked to the troubled Sabo bridge.
The Metropolitan Council carved up a $94 million engineering contract rather than give all the work to its first choice, URS Corp., which has come under scrutiny for its role in designing the bike and pedestrian bridge that was suddenly shut for repairs earlier this year.
But there was unusual public dissension among council members, with one worrying that the new plan could cause delays, adding $20 million to the cost of the project.
Even some members favoring the revision acknowledged potential problems with the decision, but they said they changed course because of concerns about safety and public perception after cables broke on the Sabo bridge in February.
"Another factor got dropped in our lap that we had no control over," said Council Member James Brimeyer of St. Louis Park, a community that would be served by the rail line from downtown Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs. "It's caused this doubt ... a cloud. We need to reduce that uncertainty and get some confidence in this process both from the public and the political folks that are watching."
Instead of giving all of the engineering work to URS, the agency decided to award four separate contracts related to the $1.25 billion project, including one that would go to a firm to oversee the work of other engineering firms on the line. URS would still be able to bid for the contracts.
Council Member Sandy Rummel asked whether the shakeup was unprecedented.
"There has not been a situation directly comparable to this," replied Mark Fuhrmann, a Met Council official overseeing transit projects.
The reversal by the agency -- which had been headed toward endorsing a staff recommendation to go with URS -- comes after the Sabo bridge breakdown focused new attention on URS that included a meeting between Met Council chair Susan Haigh and Gov. Mark Dayton as well as criticism by a DFL legislator.
In his campaign for governor, Dayton had criticized URS' performance as a consultant to the state on the Interstate 35W bridge before it collapsed in August 2007. The firm settled suits stemming from the collapse by paying $52 million to victims. URS said the settlement was not an admission of liability or fault.
Haigh pushed for scrapping the URS recommendation and adopting the new plan.
Met Council Member Steve Elkins, chairman of the agency's transportation committee, announced earlier this week that he was advancing the new plan at Haigh's request, but added, "I did not promise her I would vote for it."
Elkins and Council Member Roxanne Smith voted against the revision.
"I do believe there's a possibility of increased cost," Smith said afterward, adding she didn't have safety concerns about URS.
Elkins favored awarding the entire $94 million contract to URS, saying there was a consensus among agency staff members that the San Francisco firm would do a better job than engineering rival AECOM of Los Angeles.
During evaluations of the firms, "URS had come to the table, clearly already working through some of the more difficult design issues that they anticipated as part of the project," he said.
Elkins said earlier this week that carving up the contract could delay construction work by six months and add $20 million to the project's cost.
Fuhrmann said that other aspects of the project could be accelerated to make up for a six-month delay in engineering and that he expects the line to open as scheduled in 2018. He said the special contract to oversee the engineering would cost millions, but estimating the overall increase in engineering cost is "still murky."
Elkins also challenged the need for an oversight contract, saying it's unlikely that the firm awarded it would catch unanticipated problems.
But other council members said difficulties with the new approach are outweighed by a fresh start.
"It's the wisest decision we could make, given the lessons of the Sabo bridge," Council Member Jennifer Munt said. "If it takes a bit longer and costs a bit more, it's well worth what we gain in terms of public safety and confidence."
Council Member Edward Reynoso said: "Public perception is big, but public safety is paramount. I don't want to be faced with a bad decision down the line because we didn't take this step."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504