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Rebuilding bridge will be hard, fast

  • Article by: Richard Meryhew
  • Star Tribune
  • August 13, 2007 - 11:28 AM

Little is known about the next Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge, but what officials do know is that the new span over the Mississippi River will go up fast.

Real fast.

An official told the Associated Press today that a preliminary design already has been selected, but would not give details.

Lucy Kender, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said officials typically would get to select from several designs.

"In this one, there's only one that has been developed," she told the AP. Public comments on the design will begin this week.

A news conference to talk about the design is scheduled for 2 p.m. today.

The decision by the state to fast-track the project means that a new bridge near downtown Minneapolis could be up and operating by late 2008.

That's half the time it usually takes for a project that size, including the first I-35W bridge, started in 1964 and opened in 1967.

For a state that has never built a bridge of that size so quickly, it's a formidable task.

It also carries some risk, but one that several construction experts say probably is worth taking.

"It's a major highway there -- I think it needs to be fast-tracked," said C.C. Myers, who runs a construction firm in California with a reputation for quick-turn projects after earthquakes and other disasters. "They've got to get it back open for traffic. It's a helluva inconvenience."

Said Bob Beckel, regional manager for Edward Kraemer & Sons, a national contractor that builds bridges, dams and heavy highway projects and is bidding on the I-35W work: "The time frame they are talking about is possible, but it's going to have to be a great effort by everybody. You are really going to have to pour the coals to it. It's going to be 24/7, full-bore."

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials met Friday with five contracting teams who qualified to make bids to build the new bridge. The department hopes to have a contract awarded by sometime in mid-September.

Design-build option

Under a more routine construction timeline, Beckel said, design work -- drawing up and reviewing plans, pulling permits and talking with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep them abreast of developments -- would take about a year to complete.

By fast-tracking and embracing a construction strategy called "design-build," the state will try to save time up front by choosing one contractor to oversee both designing and building the bridge.

The state will establish general parameters for what it wants, but "They'll leave a lot up to the designers and contractors to figure out a way to get this thing built as fast as they can at the best price they can get," Beckel said.

He said the contractor will design and build on the fly, figuring out "a couple, three different plans of attack as far as how the structure will look" and materials used.

"Is it going to be steel? Or concrete? How is it going to go together?" he said.

Long before they finish the design, they'll be building.

"[After] you come up with the foundation, you could be under construction in a couple weeks," Myers said. "And once you get the thing going, you build it as you are completing your design. All you have to know is what the hell you are going to build."

Although some construction techniques can speed up work -- doubling and tripling up on shifts, expediting deliveries of materials and putting some sections together off-site -- the biggest time saver comes with accelerating deadlines for decisions on design, permits and other red tape.

"There'll still be permitting and inspections, but there won't be so many people involved in the decision-making," Beckel said. "Instead of days, you're talking hours. Instead of weeks, you're talking days."

Some critics of fast-tracking worry that building so quickly could lead to worker fatigue and mistakes, jeopardizing the safety of workers and the quality of the work.

Bob French, president of Flatiron Constructors Inc., a national contracting firm based in Longmont, Colo., that has fast-tracked about a dozen major bridge projects and plans to bid on the I-35W work, admits that fast-tracking is riskier because "you are compacting a lot more [work] hours in a shorter period of time. People are working on top of one another ... and you have to concentrate harder on the safety aspect of it."

Nevertheless, he said, "safety will be, as always, the top priority."

Design suffers?

Others worry that rushing construction may eliminate a more elaborate and impressive design.

Some also say that fast-tracking under "design-build" gives the contractor too much control. What's more, unanticipated construction problems could lead to cost overruns or delays that would negate the benefits of fast-tracking.

Still, Will Kempton, director of Caltrans, a state agency that oversees transportation work in California and who has witnessed dozens of fast-tracked projects, said it's worth it.

"Some people have said, 'You are not being careful enough or taking enough time being safe.' But we're right there overseeing the work of the contractor," Kempton said. "We're watching very, very carefully. I don't see a loss in terms of safety or quality of the project. We'd say the risks are minimal. ... But the positives are very, very significant."

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who toured the I-35W bridge site last week, said a safe replacement can be built safely by the end of 2008.

"The time it takes is less important if it's done properly and the new structure is of the most modern design, and with sufficient redundancy built into it to prevent this kind of catastrophic collapse," he said.

'It can be done'

Because the entire I-35W bridge collapsed, contractors won't lose time building temporary traffic lanes. And despite Minnesota's sometimes bitter winters, contractors shouldn't lose time to the cold.

Beckel said contractors can easily work during the coldest of days, erecting the foundation and superstructure girders and piecing together the massive concrete or steel.

"You'll lose some days to a snowstorm or two," he said. "But for the most part, you'll be clocking the thing full-time. The substructures are so massive that cold temperatures don't affect that."

Nevertheless, French said, there are risks for the contractor.

If the company doesn't meet deadlines it can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars often built into a contract as incentive for early completion.

Still, French said, the challenge of such a job and its "extremely aggressive schedule" is appealing.

"Maybe it's that construction bravado," he said. "But it can be done, sure. You virtually have to double up everything or you burn everybody out to build it. Similarly, the state and other agencies must keep up, too. ... You can't have somebody sitting there saying, 'It can wait until Monday' when it's Friday afternoon. It ain't going to work. Everything has got to keep going."

Myers agrees: "It's just a matter of putting the right team together and really just having the right attitude and the right people."

When a tanker truck crashed and burned on I-80 near Oakland, Calif., in April, melting the steel frame supporting the access ramp above it, Myers went right to work.

The day he was awarded the contract, he ordered steel from Pennsylvania and soon built sections of the new ramp off site. With crews on the job 24 hours a day, the ramp opened in 26 days, half the time expected. Although he bid $876,000 for the job and spent an estimated $2.5 million to build the ramp, his quick work earned a $5 million bonus.

"To do something like that you've got to have your [act] together," he said. "It takes everybody. All your subcontractors and suppliers and all that. You have to have the same goal and say, 'Let's show 'em how damn fast we can do this job.' If you don't have that attitude, you're not going to get it done."

Staff writer Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report. richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425

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