A wooden staircase at the Interstate 35W bridge site was built quickly in the aftermath of the Aug. 1 collapse by Eagan contractor Graham Penn-Co Inc.

Jennifer Simonson, Star Tribune

Contractor might repay some costs of I-35W stairs

  • Star Tribune
  • January 31, 2008 - 10:24 AM

The contractor that was paid $157,400 to build a wooden staircase leading to the ruins of the Interstate 35W bridge is in talks with MnDOT about returning or paying for tools it charged to taxpayers, the firm's president said Wednesday.

Dave Lenss, head of Eagan-based Graham Penn-Co Construction Inc., said in an interview that his company sought and received reimbursement for equipment that shouldn't have been included in billing.

"Some things went through that shouldn't have,'' said Lenss, whose company derives most of its revenues from state and local public agencies.

He said discussions with MnDOT have been preliminary, but that his company is open to settling any undeserved payments it received. He said there is no dispute with MnDOT about labor charges, which totaled $47,582.

MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender confirmed that the company's equipment purchases are the subject of discussion. She said the issue will be addressed next week at a meeting between MnDOT, Graham Penn-Co and the prime I-35W cleanup contractor that hired Graham Penn-Co to build the 120-step staircase.

The overall cost of the four-day job amounted to $1,311 per step, and drew public criticism and questions about MnDOT's willingness to reimburse the company for tools and equipment that any large contractor would be expected to already own.

Kender said Wednesday that MnDOT normally does not pay for tools or equipment for that type of job.

According to invoices and receipts reviewed by the Star Tribune, the company charged $4,914 to MnDOT for equipment. Among the items were shovels, two automatic nail guns at $459 each, sledgehammers, a pickax, a posthole digger, a rake, a chainsaw and a reciprocating saw. The company also charged the state $95 for a 10-gallon water cooler, and $27 for paper cups and a cupholder.

At the time of the Star Tribune report, Lenss said, "MnDOT never questioned what we were doing and watched us along the way.''

Lenss said MnDOT told him to get the job done as quickly as possible. It was faster to go out and buy new equipment than to go get tools from other job sites, he said.

But Chris Rohr, the former business development manager at Graham Penn-Co, disputed Lenss' assertions. Rohr said he had been available throughout the project to deliver equipment, tools, supplies and food, as needed.

"There was no need to buy new tools and equipment to perform the stair construction, as Graham Penn-Co already owned all necessary tools and equipment,'' said Rohr, who lost his job at the company late last year after working there for about six months. "I was available to quickly bring them anything they needed from Graham's existing inventory.''

Lenss said Rohr wasn't in a position to know what tools the company had or didn't have.

Graham Penn-Co of Eagan is a subsidiary of Graham Group Ltd., based in Calgary, Alberta. In the Twin Cities, the company has been involved in several high-profile public construction projects, including the new public library in downtown Minneapolis, the Metropolitan State University library in St. Paul, light-rail extensions to the site of the Minnesota Twins' new ballpark, Metro Transit park and ride facilities in the western suburbs and expansion of the passenger terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

For the staircase project, Graham Penn-Co was hired by Carl Bolander & Sons Inc., the St. Paul firm hired by MnDOT on an emergency, no-compete basis for debris removal at the site of the bridge collapse. MnDOT called for the staircase to provide access for emergency workers and others as they walked to and from the MnDOT command post located at the top of the hill.

Paul McEnroe 612-673-1745 Tony Kennedy 612-673-4213

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