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Nick Coleman: I-35W bridge is local, but new Flatiron trucks are imported

  • Article by: Nick Coleman
  • Star Tribune
  • October 23, 2007 - 11:24 PM

The winning bid to build a new Interstate 35W bridge included a promise from Flatiron Constructors, the Colorado company picked for the project, to include an educational dimension to reach out to Minnesota school kids.

Unfortunately, Flatiron did not promise to reach out to Minnesota car dealers.

Twenty-one brand-spanking new trucks have been shipped to the west bank of the Mississippi River where the I-35W bridge pancaked on Aug. 1, killing 13 people. And another 20 or more trucks could be on the way.

Tuesday, I saw 15 trucks parked by the bridge site -- 12 Ford F-150 Supercab 4-by-4's with Triton V-8 engines, two Ford Explorers and one Ford Escape -- so new that many still have instruction tags hanging from their ignitions and control panels, and they have temporary state registration cards taped in their rear windows.

But those registrations are not from Minnesota, where Flatiron -- costing far more than local bidders, and taking longer to complete the project -- is scheduled to begin work next week. Flatiron's Fords are registered in Colorado; they were purchased in Littleton, a Denver suburb.

A Flatiron spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment, but permit me to sum up the situation here: Buying Colorado trucks for a high-profile project in Minnesota that still carries the emotional pangs of death and destruction? Dumb, Flatiron.

This is a company that was judged to have better public "outreach" than the local firms that lost out on the project, despite submitting lower bids. Would a Minnesota company buy a shiny new fleet for the project from, say, Colorado?

I previously have mentioned that a preposterous 15 percent of the bridge bidding process was judged on "public relations" factors. Flatiron was found superior to local contractors on a Flack Scale prepared by the cosmetic specialists at the Minnesota Department of Transportation; Flatiron was judged most likely to have the best chance of "renewing public confidence" in a transportation department that is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

MnDOT is rushing to get the new bridge underway before anyone asks more questions about what it was doing while the old bridge was getting ready to fall. (Hey, whatever happened to that emergency response coordinator who couldn't be bothered to stop touring East Coast hotels and visit the disaster site for 10 days?)

Taxpayer spotted the trucks

A sharp-eyed taxpayer tipped me off to the fleet of out-of-state trucks parked by the river. Is this a big deal? Maybe not. But is it symbolic of the fast-track way the new bridge has been crammed through by officials scurrying for cover?

I think so.

So does John Wiese.

Wiese owns John Wiese Ford in Sauk Centre and advertises his dealership as being "In the Middle of Minnesota." That makes him one middle Minnesotan who is unhappy that our catastrophe is paying off so handsomely for Colorado.

Wiese estimated that the suggested retail price of the trucks as between $33,000 and $38,000 each. Taking an average of $35,500, those 21 gleaming new Flatiron trucks could have cost more than $700,000. Another 20 trucks, which Flatiron is considering, would bring the total to $1.4 million.

$65,000 in lost sales taxes

Even with a generous fleet discount, we are talking a million dollars. While that may be a drop in the bucket on a $234 million project, a million bucks means $65,000 in lost sales taxes, which could have helped MnDOT add, who knows? Maybe a bridge inspector!

And if the trucks had been bought in Hennepin County, the purchase would have kicked $1,500 toward construction of the new Twins baseball stadium. That might not sound like much, but every little bit of your money helps.

"I don't know why they would have to buy their trucks out of state," Wiese says. "Ford dealers in Minnesota can compete with Ford dealers anywhere in the nation, and probably whip 'em. When I built my new dealership, I made sure to buy my new paint booth and my frame rack right here in Minnesota, and I would think this new bridge project would be smart enough to buy what they need locally."

Yes, but it's a MnDOT project. About the only surprising thing to me is these new trucks aren't on fire.

Nick Coleman • ncoleman@startribune.com

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