MnDOT may not have cash for 2nd Wakota Bridge span

Legislators are told "We'll cross that bridge when we get there" if bids to finish the troubled project exceed budget.

MnDOT officials said on Thursday that they don't know if the agency has enough money to complete the Wakota Bridge between South St. Paul and Newport, a half-finished project already three years behind schedule and nearly $20 million over budget.

Khani Sahebjam, who heads the Minnesota Department of Transportation's metro district, told legislators at a fact-finding hearing that the agency has set aside $50 million for the Interstate 494 bridge job. But he said there's no assurance that contractors will submit bids anywhere close to that amount when the job is re-bid in January.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," Sahebjam said.

"That's what I'm afraid of," said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-South St. Paul, who chaired the hearing. "I don't think there's going to be a bridge to cross."

Atkins, who heads the House Commerce and Labor Committee, accused the agency of recklessness by not locking up a deal with Lunda Construction Co. late last year to finish the bridge.

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who is also MnDOT commissioner, read from a prepared statement and referred most questions to her aides. She said she fired Lunda last December because the contractor's offer to build the second half of the bridge was too high. The second half of the bridge had been redesigned after problems developed with the first span.

Atkins repeatedly called MnDOT's credibility into question during the hearing, leaving engineers and managers on the defensive when they explained how they dealt with design flaws, their lack of expertise for a bridge of this style and, in one case, why they paid $5,000 a day, plus travel expenses, to a contract negotiation specialist who failed to mediate a deal with Lunda.

"This is the most unnecessary delay I've ever witnessed," Atkins said. "At this point there's no end date. We'd like to have a bridge built before we die, just so my hearse can be driven over the eastbound span."

Designer had earlier problems

To relieve one of the worst bottlenecks in the Twin Cities, MnDOT in 2002 launched a $250 million project to replace the old Wakota Bridge with two new freeway spans and improve adjacent roadways on the east side of the Mississippi River. The bridge is called Wakota because it links Washington and Dakota counties.

The project ran into serious trouble in September 2004 when stress cracks developed in the half-completed westbound span. The bridge designer, HNTB Corp., said it erred in the design and the state is seeking compensation.

For the first time Thursday, MnDOT aides disclosed that HNTB had had a similar cracking flaw on a Florida bridge it designed. Rather than getting another consulting firm to do a peer review, state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said MnDOT asked HNTB simply to recheck its Wakota design. HNTB assured the agency that similar cracks would not occur in the Wakota design, he said.

Lunda had been hired to build both new bridge spans. It received an additional $19 million from MnDOT to fix the cracking problem and finish the westbound section. But Lunda couldn't reach an agreement with MnDOT on a new price for the eastbound span.

Throughout the hearing, Atkins expressed anger with MnDOT for failing to disclose the project's engineering mistakes, finances and negotiations to his committee. He set a Nov. 5 deadline for MnDOT and its Wakota contractors to produce all records and provide an inventory of confidential documents.

Failure to comply could result in an unprecedented legislative subpoena, he said.

According to MnDOT documents, Lunda said it would build the eastbound span for no more than $58.9 million, and possibly less. But Molnau rejected the offer and fired Lunda, even though her staff estimated that the agency could expect to pay between $52 million and $57 million to halt the project, pay cancellation fees to Lunda and seek new bids, delaying completion until at least 2011.

"What you're doing is like going to Vegas and gambling," Atkins said. "You had a bird in hand, and instead you decided to roll the dice."

tonyk@startribune.com • 612-673-4213 pmac@startribune.com • 612-673-1745

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