Sticker shock: Bridge tab soars by $143 million

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE and KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 1, 2007 - 10:07 PM

The higher estimate from MnDOT prompts finger-pointing and a scramble to find the money.

The full cost of replacing the Interstate 35W bridge and related work is expected to reach nearly $400 million, far exceeding the funds set aside by the federal government for the work.

The revelation Monday by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) seemed to surprise legislators at a hearing on federal and state costs for the project.

"We are all now seeing today a larger cost than maybe what we first understood," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.

While legislators considered a request by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to free up state money for the work, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., bluntly accused the Pawlenty administration of failing to make use of federal funds already available for the reconstruction of the I-35W bridge.

"They haven't applied for a dime yet," Oberstar said. "What's the matter with this state?"

Brian McClung, Pawlenty's press secretary, said the administration is in daily contact with federal highway officials and is "seeking reimbursement for every eligible cost." He in turn suggested Oberstar should do more to speed up federal funding.

While the bridge contract alone is $234 million, expenses for right of way, demolition, traffic restoration, contractor incentives, a consulting contract and costs to Minneapolis push the overall price tag to $393 million, said Kevin Gray, chief financial officer for MnDOT.

That's 57 percent higher than the $250 million that Congress earmarked in August for bridge replacement, and raises the prospect of the state paying a substantially higher portion of the final costs than expected.

"When Congress passed the $250 million ... they had no idea what the costs would be," MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau told legislative leaders. "We're just today coming to you with more solid numbers."

State Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said he had assumed the federal government would cover nearly all of the costs.

"They said they were going to pay for it all, not knowing what it was going to cost," he said, referring to the federal government. "Shouldn't we now say to them, 'OK, here's what it's really going to cost?'"

McClung said the governor will work with legislators on how to make up the difference. McClung said options included borrowing, tapping the state general fund and seeking additional federal money.

"We're going to be asking for and seeking federal reimbursement for anything that's eligible," he said. "But there clearly will be some additional [state] funding that will be needed. We'll work with legislators on that."

Adding up all the costs

Asked to explain the wide variance between the original cost estimate and the latest figure, McClung said in the days after the collapse, MnDOT concentrated on the cost of reconstructing the bridge.

"All of the costs related to the bridge collapse were not immediately tallied," he said. "They worked over these following two months putting together the cost estimate."

The higher cost figure was made public as the Pawlenty administration and Oberstar argued over federal money, some of which the congressman said is already available for the bridge work.

Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Oberstar said he decided to "set the record straight" after hearing state officials complain that bridge reconstruction efforts were being hampered by the failure of the Democrat-led Congress to appropriate the full $250 million that was set aside in August.

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