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Gov. Mark Dayton criticized URS during the 2010 campaign, saying he was “outraged” by company memos about the I-35W bridge.

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Dayton rethinks his doubts about URS

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA
  • Star Tribune
  • May 22, 2012 - 10:42 PM

The company that was the consultant on the I-35W bridge when it collapsed will soon meet with Gov. Mark Dayton as it pursues additional state contracts.

Dayton spokeswoman Katharine Tinucci said the governor still has "unresolved concerns" and "some unresolved questions," but will meet with state officials seeking to hire URS Corp. of San Francisco and with the company itself before making a decision.

Tinucci said Dayton, in a change from previous statements, now was weighing the "benefit of the experience" the worldwide company would bring to a $100 million engineering services contract for the Southwest Corridor light-rail line. Dayton declined to be interviewed for this story.

Meanwhile, URS has hired Tunheim Partners to assist with corporate communications for the company. That company's founder, Kathy Tunheim, serves as Dayton's senior adviser on job creation.

Late last month, Tunheim Partners distributed a letter from URS in which the company's chief executive offered to meet with Dayton to emphasize that the company was found not liable for the bridge's collapse, which left 13 dead and more than 100 injured in August 2007. "There were no findings of fault against us," Tom Bader, URS' Minneapolis office manager, said in the letter.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board said the bridge's 40-year-old faulty design was largely responsible for the tragedy, URS paid $52.4 million in 2010 to settle a lawsuit brought on behalf of those who were killed and injured.

Kathy Tunheim, who said she meets with the governor "a couple of times a month," said she does not intend to talk to Dayton about URS because it would be "really not appropriate." But she said she told Dayton's staff that her firm had been hired by URS two months ago -- about the same Dayton said publicly that he had "very strong concerns" about giving the company more state contracts.

Tunheim said that "I honestly don't know" whether the company hired Tunheim Partners knowing that Tunheim was an unpaid adviser to the governor.

"Sure, we think about it always," Tunheim said, referring to whether she thought about declining the URS contract because of a possible conflict of interest. "Is there a true conflict? [In] this case, in my mind, there's none."

She said Tunheim's role is to tell the public that URS, despite being linked to a "very, very sad day in the history of Minnesota," is a worldwide company that has completed many successful projects in the state.

"The question is, 'Is [the bridge collapse] all anybody needs to understand about URS?'" she said.

URS and AECOM of Los Angeles both submitted bids for the Southwest Corridor's engineering services contract, and the Metropolitan Council said last week that while neither company has yet been selected, "negotiations are ongoing" with one of the firms. Meredith Salsbery, a Met Council spokesperson, said last week that the agency was prohibited by law from naming the company.

Tinucci, however, said earlier that the agency had begun formalizing a contract with URS.

Salsbery also said URS' letter to Dayton did not violate a bid provision that forbids "unsolicited contact" with a Met Council employee or representative other than the contract administrator. Dayton, as governor, appoints all 17 Met Council members.

"The governor is neither an employee nor a representative of the Council. Therefore there is no violation," she said.

Campaign remarks

Dayton initially expressed his concerns regarding URS while campaigning for governor in 2010, saying that he was "outraged" by internal company memos that expressed doubts about the structure of the 35W bridge before its collapse. "It's terribly wrong that contracts would continue to be awarded at taxpayers' expense" to the company, Dayton said at the time.

Steve Elkins, who chairs the Met Council's transportation panel, did not indicate how much the governor's comments would be factored into his decision. "The governor has expressed his opinions, and I don't know to what extent state law allows us to factor the governor's opinion into the contract award," he said.

But Elkins added that when just two companies are bidding on a contract "you probably shouldn't rule one of them out at the beginning of the negotiations."

Dayton's comments have not been the only problem facing the company. The URS-designed Martin Sabo bike and pedestrian bridge in Minneapolis has been closed since February, when a set of bridge cables fell after a steel anchor fractured.

But the company has been working to expand its presence in Minnesota, and is bidding to design the new Stillwater Bridge, which will cost at least $571 million. According to a state Transportation Department report, URS has 25 smaller, active state contracts totaling $9 million.

Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673

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