Facing political flak and safety concerns, the Metropolitan Council is backing away from plans to award a comprehensive engineering contract for the future Southwest Corridor light-rail line to a company linked to the Sabo Bridge breakdown.

The agency staff said Friday that it will recommend multiple engineering contracts for work on the light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and the southwestern suburbs rather than give a single $94 million contract to URS Corp. of San Francisco, as recommended last month.

The decision to carve up the contract represents a retreat by the Met Council after a recent report on the breakdown in Minneapolis of the Martin Olav Sabo pedestrian and bicycle bridge, which was designed by URS and later damaged by winds. It also comes after a meeting this spring between Met Council Chair Susan Haigh and Gov. Mark Dayton, who had criticized URS during his campaign.

The new plan replaces a single engineering contract with two contracts for the same type of engineering work on different sections of the line. URS and other firms could bid and one firm could end up with both contracts.

But citing "the need to maintain public support and confidence," the staff also called Friday for a third contract to hire an outside expert to oversee the engineering. The report on the breakdown of the Sabo Bridge "underscores ...the importance of independent review of engineering plans of complex public projects like Southwest light-rail transit," the agency wrote.

The oversight would likely increase the cost of engineering by "a few millions of dollars," said Mark Fuhrmann, a top agency official for transit construction.

Fuhrmann said the new contracts would add months of work but predicted that the line would open as scheduled in 2018.

The staff's new plan is scheduled to come before the council's transportation committee on Monday. Council members, who are appointed by the governor, often follow the staff's recommendations.

Three contracts would cover preliminary engineering work and oversight and a fourth contract would be added later for final design of the transit line.

Putting on brakes

The decision to break up the contracting comes nearly two months after the staff recommended that URS get the single $94 million contract for all engineering and design work on the line, which will cost $1.25 billion to build. The agency had been negotiating for months with URS after receiving bids last December from the company and from AECOM of Los Angeles, which has done similar work on the Central Corridor light-rail line under construction between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"URS Team most qualified proposer," read a document given to committee members in early June, calling the firm's project manager a good fit and saying its proposal "identified creative solutions to key project issues."

The transportation committee was poised to act on that recommendation June 4 until Fuhrmann urged a delay until the release of a report on the Sabo Bridge breakdown commissioned by Minneapolis and Hennepin County.

The report released June 29 said the effects of wind-induced vibrations of bridge cables were not considered in the original design calculations by URS. While the bridge was monitored after construction for cable vibrations, no concerns were identified.

Vibrations caused by the wind this year broke cable plates, leading to the bridge's being shut down for several months.

The Met Council hired a law firm to review the Sabo report. Fuhrmann said it cited "engineering judgments ... that were of some concern and truly caused a yellow light for us."

During the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Dayton also criticized URS for its role as a consultant to the state on the Interstate 35W bridge before it collapsed in 2007. The firm paid $52.4 million in 2010 to settle a lawsuit brought by families of killed and injured motorists.

He met with Haigh May 30 to discuss the contract but did not take a position, said Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci.

"In light of the Sabo Bridge report, he thought it was a wise decision to hold off on ... to continue to look into this," Tinucci said.

URS spokesman Ronald Low said Friday, "We are going to decline the opportunity to comment on the matter."

AECOM also did not comment.

Council members' role

The full Met Council could act as soon as next week on the staff's recommendation to break up the contracts and seek bids later this summer.

While a staff document says the changes would engage "multiple consultants" for engineering, Fuhrmann acknowledged that one firm could wind up with both preliminary engineering contracts.

"We're not going to foreclose that opportunity," he said. "We don't know how that will play out until we see those proposals."

Council member Roxanne Smith said earlier this week that she was awaiting the Met Council staff's review of the Sabo Bridge report.

"I want to make sure no stone is left unturned before we make this decision," she said. "We want to make sure we've hired the right firm."

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504