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Minneapolis Speedway

John Chiglo is looking up from the banks of the Mississippi River at a huge ivory monolith. It's the new I-35W bridge, built on...
by | February 28, 2009
 

John Chiglo is looking up from the banks of the Mississippi River at a huge ivory monolith. It's the new I-35W bridge, built on the site in Minneapolis where an old span collapsed suddenly on August 1, 2007, killing 13 people. The four giant support piers on each side of the river curve gently into the superstructure, giving the new bridge a slightly arced appearance when viewed from a distance. But up close, from where Chiglo stands, what's most striking is how polished a brand-new bridge looks, before the rust and grime of age settle in. "That's 50,000 yards of concrete," Chiglo says, sounding like a baseball fan rattling off the slugging percentage of his favorite player. "Seventeen million pounds of steel, 740 miles of post-tension steel strands."

Chiglo served as the Minnesota Department of Transportation's project manager for the I-35W bridge, also known as the St. Anthony Falls Bridge. He has good reason to be proud of it. The new span opened to traffic barely a year after the tragic collapse. Not only did MinnDOT beat an almost ludicrously ambitious deadline by three months, but it did so without any serious injuries to workers. The project came in respectably close to its budget -- it went less than 2 percent over.

In the world of bridge construction, this story is a bit unusual. Bridge projects, like other big infrastructure endeavors, have a way of dragging out months or years behind schedule -- and blasting through their budgets. It doesn't have to be that way. That's especially important to remember as the federal government hands some $36 billion over to states for road, bridge and transit projects in an effort to get the economy going again. MinnDOT's handling of the I-35W rebuilding demonstrates that states can spend lots of money, put people to work and make something with lasting value -- and do those things both quickly and efficiently.

Getting the process right isn't easy, however. For bridge construction to work better, states have to manage delicate relationships with contractors and force different levels of government to work together more cooperatively. And, as the collapse of the old I-35W bridge made all too clear, construction is only half of the nation's infrastructure challenge. Maintenance and inspection of old bridges remains a huge problem in many states, even after the Minneapolis tragedy. The federal government lists 12 percent of all bridges in the United States as structurally deficient, and an additional 13 percent as functionally obsolete. So as states begin spending their stimulus money, they should not be thinking only about how to build bridges quickly and cheaply. They also should be strategizing about how to keep these assets in good condition for decades to come.

How was the new I-35W bridge built so quickly? The short answer is that the state of Minnesota didn't give the construction company in charge of the bridge, Flatiron Construction Corp., much of a choice.

Flatiron's base contract was for $234 million. In addition, the company was offered up to $27 million if it completed the project early -- and faced financial penalties if it finished late. That was incentive enough for construction workers to adopt a 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week schedule. Says Chiglo: "We worked holidays, weekends, day, night, rain, snow, sleet, ice." Ultimately, Flatiron received a $25 million bonus.

But while Minnesota demanded precisely WHEN the bridge should be built, the state left to Flatiron the details of HOW the bridge should be built. That's not the way state-issued construction contracts typically work. The most common process is what's known in the construction world as "design-bid-build." State employees design what needs to be built, then they put it up for bid and the private sector builds it based on the state's specifications. Those specifications can be exceptionally prescriptive. Often, they don't just stipulate what needs to be built -- they also order the contractor to build it using a specific process.

By contrast, the new I-35W span was erected through a method known as "design-build." Under this model, many of the details of a project are left to the contractors, which allows them to put their expertise to work. Design-build isn't universally embraced among DOTs; the results are only as good as the contractors selected. But the big advantage of design-build is that initial construction can begin before the final design decisions are made, often allowing projects to get started swiftly. That's exactly how it worked out in Minneapolis, where construction began, remarkably, just three months after the old bridge fell.

To be sure, some of that urgency came from the emergency nature of the collapse. Bureaucracies moved at record speed, and cooperated across every level of government. Federal permits that normally take months to obtain were ready in days. The City of Minneapolis rapidly gave approval to the design of the new bridge. "Nobody," says Bob French, Flatiron's chief operating officer, "wanted to be the individual or agency that stopped that bridge from getting built." The unusual amount of political momentum that emerged out of the crisis is a big reason why French thinks it would be difficult to replicate this success story elsewhere.

There's another reason, too. Ironically, the collapse itself made it easier to get the new bridgework done quickly. Under less tragic circumstances, one of the big challenges in replacing an old bridge with a new one is keeping the existing span operating while the work goes on. Transportation officials are loathe to shut down a critical artery before the new one is ready, for fear of tying traffic in knots. At the same time, however, the old bridge inevitably gets in the way, complicating the construction process. In Minneapolis, of course, the old bridge was gone.

Unusual as that situation was, it raises an interesting question: When an old bridge, road or any piece of infrastructure is so worn out that it must be replaced entirely, should it simply be shut down to make way for the construction crews? One person who believes that the answer is yes -- at least in some cases -- is Tom Warne, a former Utah transportation director who now works as a consultant. In the 1990s, when Utah was rebuilding I-15 in and around Salt Lake City, Warne polled drivers on what they would prefer: the acute, if temporary, disruption of widespread road closures, or keeping the roads open and under construction for a longer period of time. The response: Close the roads. Utah followed the advice, which accelerated the project dramatically. "We should be bolder about that sort of thing," Warne says. "The public understands it and they'll adjust."

While the Minneapolis bridge collapse shook up the DOT in Minnesota, the tragedy's impact on the rest of the country has been surprisingly muted. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, state officials everywhere described the disaster as a wake-up call. Since then, many of them have hit the snooze button.

One year after the collapse, an Associated Press analysis looked at each state's 20 most heavily traveled structurally deficient bridges. Of the bridges analyzed, only one in 10 had been fixed up in the year after the collapse.

People in the industry don't dispute that less has happened since August 2007 than they would have liked. Part of the reason is that the scale of the problem is so enormous. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials estimates that $140 billion is needed to repair more than 150,000 bridges that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That's only a fraction of the $2.2 trillion the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates for the nation's total infrastructure needs. With state revenue foundering and gas taxes in particular drying up, the past year and a half has proven to be a difficult time for states to make new investments.

But the problems run deeper than that. Glacial permitting processes mean that, for large projects, it can take a dozen years for a new bridge to become reality. The construction industry is deeply fragmented, with separate teams of suppliers, engineers and contractors needed just to build a bridge. "It would be a seismic event for the construction industry to change itself in one year," says Barry LePatner, a New York construction lawyer. "It remains a truly inefficient industry."

Nonetheless, there have been gradual signs of change. More and more states are following the Minneapolis model by making a contractor's payments contingent on getting the work done on time. Design-build was considered novel when Warne was using it in Utah a decade ago. Now, it's becoming more commonplace.

And, there's at least some reason to believe that the federal economic stimulus will continue these trends. "Shovel-ready" is the buzzword of the moment -- the feds want to fund projects that can put people to work immediately. Since design-build can hasten the start date for projects, it may be the tool of choice for state DOTs in the months ahead.

If there's one state that isn't shy about trying new ideas, it's Missouri. A couple of years ago, Missouri proposed an experiment, known as the Safe and Sound bridge program. The intent was nothing less than to upend most of the basic tenets of bridge building and maintenance in the United States.

The state had 802 bridges, most of them small and in rural areas, which had fallen into poor condition. Normally, a state would bid out repair work on each bridge separately. Instead, Missouri offered them all up in one giant contract. Normally, the state would prescribe how each bridge would be brought into good condition. But Missouri wasn't telling the contractors whether they had to repair the existing bridges or replace them. And, normally, contractors are paid in full when bridgework happens. In Missouri's case, the contractors were to finance all the costs for the first five years. Payment to the team in charge of the bridges was to be contingent on the contractors' keeping them in good shape for an additional 25 years.

Although it was formulated before the I-35W bridge collapsed, Missouri's plan represents a logical extension of the ideas coming out of Minneapolis. You can tell that from its name: "design-build-finance-maintain." Many of the goals -- giving contractors more flexibility, but paying them only for getting results -- are the same.

That, says Don Hillis, director of System Management for the Missouri Department of Transportation, is a big reason for the state's optimism about the concept. The idea here is that handing hundreds of the bridges over to one team can reap economies of scale -- especially when the contractors have free reign to design their own approach. Because of the maintenance component, the pressure is on the contractors to produce work that would stand the test of time. Plus, private funding is seen as a way to speed up work in spite of the limited public money available. The contract required that all 802 bridges be in good shape within five years.

As it turned out, the decision to use private-sector funds was the plan's Achilles' Heel. Missouri selected its team of contractors, but as the availability of credit tightened last fall, they were unable to obtain financing. The plan in its original form had to be scrapped and revised.

Missouri's new plan is still groundbreaking. This spring, it will hand out a single design-build contract for 554 of the original 802 bridges. Government-issued bonds will fund the project, and it won't have the 25-year maintenance component. Nonetheless, the experiment will test whether putting a single team in charge of hundreds of bridges can lead to more efficient construction."We still think it's a good concept," says Hillis. "When the private sector has the ability to muster funds at very good rates, I think it's something that could happen again."

Not everyone is so sure that Missouri has discovered the formula of the future. The state's plan would have greatly expanded the role of the private sector in bridge financing and maintenance, placing public assets in private hands. While private control of infrastructure is common in Europe and Canada, it remains controversial in the United States. But if there's one point that Missouri clearly had right, it's this: States need to focus just as much on bridge maintenance as they do on construction.

That's because maintenance is just as big a problem area as construction. Basic steps are routinely neglected, such as painting bridges regularly to prevent rusting and removing corrosive road salt. The result is that bridges have to be repaired or replaced years earlier than if they were maintained properly.

Some observers fear that the federal stimulus will only make the situation worse, by creating more bridges and roads that need upkeep. "We can't even maintain the size of the infrastructure that we have now," says Michael Pagano, an infrastructure expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We're going to add to it? I think that's insane."

The reasons for the maintenance problem are diverse. One of the most troubling is that there's a built-in disincentive to do the right thing. When bridges fall into disrepair, they become eligible for federal funds to replace them. So there's little motivation for states and localities to be proactive and spend their own money on maintenance up front. Another problem: Bridge inspections remain shockingly rudimentary. Examiners spend most of their time doing a visual once-over. They might tap various bridge parts with a hammer to see if metal has corroded, but these techniques often miss serious problems developing within the bridge structure.

Peter Vanderzee is one of a growing number of people who believe that there is a better way. Vanderzee runs a company that sells sensors that allow for computerized monitoring of bridges. He compares the current inspection regimen to that of a doctor who makes a diagnosis simply by looking at the patient.

The purpose of the sensors isn't primarily to identify an imminent bridge collapse on the order of the one in Minneapolis. Instead, the main purpose is to find subtle stresses and cracks early on, before those problems turn into visible signs of trouble. Plus, Vanderzee sees another benefit to the sensors. He's the rare person who thinks the condition of American bridges is considerably better than is commonly recognized. His argument: With visual inspections, lots of bridges are lumped together as needing repairs. Sensors, he says, can tell which ones need help more than others. "If it's in better shape, we can delay repairs and we can delay replacement," Vanderzee says. "If it's in worse shape, at least we know."

While this technology has been around for quite a while, it hasn't been widely utilized. States are reluctant to pay the upfront costs of installing the sensors based on the promise of long-term savings. (They also aren't eager to go drilling holes into old bridges and perhaps weakening them even more.) One span that does have them, though, is the new I-35W bridge in Minneapolis -- it has 323 sensors to be precise. Data from those sensors will be fed to MinnDOT and the University of Minnesota, where staff will be able to monitor the bridge's condition in real time.

The sensors are just one reason that almost everyone in Minnesota views their new bridge as a success. But, as a result, Minnesotans also have higher expectations for the Department of Transportation going forward. "That didn't take long," Chiglo says. "People are already asking why we can't build every bridge so fast.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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