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Met Council set to yank rail contract from URS

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 18, 2012 - 10:37 PM

Just months after favoring a San Francisco firm for a lucrative engineering contract, the Metropolitan Council is poised to reverse course and give much of the work to competitors.

A critical number of Met Council members have decided to reject URS Corp., which came under scrutiny for its design of the Martin Olav Sabo pedestrian bridge after cables broke loose and forced its closing earlier this year.

The full Met Council is expected to vote Wednesday on the decision, a remarkable turnabout for the agency and a blow for URS, one of the top engineering firms in the nation.

Under the new arrangement, the agency would split the scope and magnitude of $94 million in engineering work into smaller contracts for two other firms.

One of those firms, AECOM of Los Angeles, was on the verge of losing its bid for the larger contract early last summer to URS.

The recommendation to go with AECOM and Kimley-Horn and Associates of North Carolina assumes that each will receive no more than $16.8 million for just preliminary engineering work on equal halves of the Southwest Corridor project. The total is nearly $3 million less than an earlier independent estimate of what those two contracts would cost.

"Splitting the line for ... the preliminary engineering work set the stage for a very competitive bidding process, yielding two top-tier and expert firms as the recommended bidders," said Council Member Jon Commers.

'Not too surprised'

Council Member Adam Duininck said he "was a little surprised, but not too surprised," that URS wasn't recommended by the staff for either contract.

URS spokesman Ron Low on Tuesday declined to comment. A day before the agency voted in July to carve up the contracts, a law firm representing URS sent letters to council members' homes warning them of a possible lawsuit and instructing them to "preserve all documents."

The reversal by the agency came after the Sabo bridge breakdown focused new attention on the firm. At one point, Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh met with Gov. Mark Dayton on the controversy.

Dayton, during his campaign for governor, had criticized URS' performance as a consultant to the state on the Interstate 35W bridge before it collapsed in August 2007. The firm settled suits stemming from the collapse by paying $52 million to victims while maintaining the settlement was not an admission of liability or fault.

Haigh pushed for scrapping the URS recommendation and carving up the contract.

Plans will have 'sensitivity'

The Met Council members who supported awarding contracts to AECOM and Kimley-Horn sit on the agency's transportation committee, which includes a majority of the full council. Their voice vote this week appeared unanimous.

Duininck said he was satisfied with the approach because he was convinced that the two engineering firms would meet minority hiring goals and consider concerns of communities where the light-rail line is being built, including St. Louis Park, where residents are worried about noise.

"There's going to be some sensitivity around the ... plans that they put forward," Duininck said.

Mark Fuhrmann, who oversees transit projects for the Met Council, agreed with one council member who said some of the firms put together "far different teams" during the new round of bidding.

While the expected contracts would cost $3 million less than earlier anticipated, the decision to seek new bids delayed the start of engineering work by six months and officials have said that could add millions to the cost.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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