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Were savvy bridge firms duped or outsmarted?

  • Article by: Mike Kaszuba
  • Star Tribune
  • October 3, 2007 - 10:14 PM

Three of the largest and savviest highway construction companies working in Minnesota want the public to believe that they were essentially duped out of the job to rebuild the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge.

In a protest that has gotten the attention of legislators, the companies have complained that state officials misled them into thinking that the Minnesota Department of Transportation wanted the cheapest and fastest rebuilding project, when what MnDOT really wanted was an attractive-looking bridge that would take more time and cost more money.

But the companies filing the protest are asking for one other leap of faith: That the only construction team that understood what was wanted was the one led by Flatiron Constructors, a Colorado firm that had never done business before with MnDOT.

"You're right to ask, 'How can that happen?'" said Dean Thomson, an attorney representing the companies filing the protest. "That is why these savvy, experienced proposal teams feel misdirected and misled by this agency they have worked with for decades."

As the protesting companies await a ruling, and contend that they are pressing their complaint on behalf of taxpayers, as well as themselves, they are simultaneously working on some of the largest contracts ever awarded by the agency, including the Crosstown Highway project on the Minneapolis-Richfield border.

Although Thomson dismisses the significance, the companies' top officials also have supported politicians with their checkbooks.

Richard Ames, president and founder of Burnsville-based Ames Construction, is a campaign contributor to influential Republicans nationally, and is a prominent booster of University of Minnesota athletics. Two top executives at C.S. McCrossan, a Maple Grove construction company, contributed to Gov. Tim Pawlenty's 2006 campaign.

Ames and C.S. McCrossan, along with a third company joining the protest, Lunda Construction of Wisconsin have over the years won numerous MnDOT contracts for everything from adding lanes on I-494, to building Minnesota's first light rail line, to rebuilding Hwy. 100, to remaking Hwy. 212, to creating I-394 and putting up a new Lake Street Bridge in Minneapolis. As part of the protest, Lunda has stated that the company has built more than 37 bridges across the Mississippi River.

Two of the companies, Ames and Lunda, also in March submitted the $288 million winning bid to reconstruct the notoriously congested Crosstown Commons, a contract MnDOT called the largest in state history.

"If you're a Minneapolis resident, you're going to be driving on Lunda roads every time you go up through the Crosstown," said Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, the vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee who is also questioning what happened.

The process for replacing the collapsed I-35W bridge seemed created to hold few surprises for the losing bidders. The six-person technical team that rated the bid proposals, according to the Minnesota chapter of the Associated General Contractors (AGC), included Wayne Murphy, a former MnDOT engineer who was representing the trade group. Lunda, McCrossan and Ames are all members of the trade group.

Many meetings with teams

Each of the teams competing for the $234 million contract awarded to Flatiron, according to MnDOT, had "multiple face-to-face meetings" with agency officials where they could submit questions or ask for clarifications on the contract. There were also, according to MnDOT, two meetings with the agency's "visual quality advisory team."

MnDOT has defended the bid process, and maintains that documents explaining its decision will be released when a formal contract is signed with Flatiron.

"It was very clear," said Linda Figg, whose Florida company, Figg Engineering, is part of the Flatiron team. Figg Engineering has designed six of the top 25 bridges of the last 100 years, as selected by Roads & Bridges, a trade magazine.

Winner hires P.R. firm

"We've been around protests before," said Mitch Fowler, Flatiron's manager of preconstruction services. The Flatiron team, while awaiting MnDOT's review of the award, has hired Himle Horner Inc., a Twin Cities public relations firm, to help present its case.

With MnDOT already facing questions about its decisions preceding the bridge collapse, the agency has now had to deal with criticism over why the Flatiron team was chosen.

Flatiron's price was roughly $57 million more than the bid submitted by the McCrossan team, and $55 million more than the Ames-Lunda team. The 437 days Flatiron said was needed to build the bridge -- the maximum time allowed by MnDOT under the contract -- was 70 days more than the McCrossan team said was necessary, and 45 days more than Ames-Lunda felt was needed.

A fourth team, headed by Walsh Construction, submitted a $219 million bid and, like Flatiron, said 437 days were necessary to finish the project.

Even more troubling, according to the protest, is that the Flatiron team had a technical score -- measuring everything from experience to aesthetics to public outreach -- that was higher than any of the competitors. Critics have wondered aloud whether MnDOT put too much emphasis on the company's public outreach and communication skills, though the agency said the criteria were approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

"Big, big disparity," George Mattson, chairman of the AGC's Minnesota chapter, said of the scores. Minneapolis city officials, who have to approve the new bridge, have supported MnDOT's bid process and said their deputy director of public works, Heidi Hamilton, was one of the six members of MnDOT's committee that evaluated the bids.

"Our folks have asked those questions," said Pierre Willette, a city government relations officials, "... saying, 'Hey, how do you guys feel about this? You were in on it.' " The response, he said, was that MnDOT's process was "very fair" and "very methodical."

Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388

Mike Kaszuba • mkaszuba@startribune.com

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