Missouri's new bridge repair plan getting noticed in Minnesotaby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
Transportation will be a top issue during the legislative session that begins Tuesday. Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed bonding bill includes $225 million for bridge repair, and there's also debate over whether a separate transportation bill is needed to cover even more projects.
The money from the bonding bill aims to replace more than 600 local bridges across the state. But Minnesota's not the only state trying to make such a big fix. Missouri plans to replace about 800 bridges, and its approach is getting notice from some officials in Minnesota.
St. Paul, Minn. — The Lowry Ave. bridge in north Minneapolis, with its deck made of a steel grid instead of traditional concrete, is old and will cost about $34 million to replace.
The governor is proposing the state borrow $24 million of that cost. It's one of at least 600 local bridges that could get funding from Pawlenty's bonding proposal.
About 550 miles away, in St. Louis, the bridge that takes Delmar Blvd. over Interstate 170 is not nearly as interesting to look at, but it's in just as much need of repair.
Missouri's Department of Transportation has this and 800 other bridges slated for repair and replacement, in a program that proponents say could blaze a new trail for bridge repair.
"We knew we needed to do something radically different," said Pete Rahn, the director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, known as MO-DOT.
The "radically different" refers to the way firms were picked to replace the bridges.
Instead of bidding out each project one by one, MO-DOT has awarded one team of contractors to repair all 800.
"This has not been attempted anywhere else in the United States to date, so we're really plowing new ground," added Rahn.
Rahn says it's a better way to fix bridges than the traditional way of bidding out each project on its own.
For one, getting costs finalized now avoids inflation on the cost of building materials. He also says it uses MO-DOT staff more efficiently; they'll oversee the contractor's work instead of being buried under the paperwork of 800 separate bids.
Rahn says the risk of shoddy work is also addressed, because the contractor has to maintain the bridges for 25 years after building them.
"If they were just simply reconstructing the bridges and walking away and getting a payment, that could leave it open to question as to the quality of the work we're going to get," Rahn said. "But the idea that they have to stand behind their work for 25 years -- that provides a huge incentive on the part of the contractor to make sure they're doing high quality work."
But don't expect Minnesota to model Missouri yet.
"I don't think it's proven enough," said Bob McFarlin, an assistant to the Minnesota transportation commissioner. "Whether you can rely on one contractor for 20-25 years, to maintain that number of bridges is a very interesting question."
McFarlin says the bonding bill is the best way to get local bridges fixed quickly, and he says seeking the low bidder on each project has worked well in Minnesota.
But that's not to say he's not interested in what Missouri is doing.
"Is it feasible? Sure. Is it something people are going to watch? You bet," says McFarlin. "Could it have the opposite effect, and not be as efficient as going project by project? that's possible too."
Contractors like Tim Worke with General Contractors of Minnesota also like the long-used process of bidding out each project.
He likes that the bids usually award Minnesota companies.
"If you were to imprint the Missouri model onto Minnesota, you're going to take opportunities for these local, community-based businesses that provide good, high-quality jobs, and give them to one big -- maybe not even Minnesota-based -- contractor that comes in, does the work, takes the profits and leaves the state," Worke said.
Missouri is also using some newer ways to pay for the project, in which the contractor funds and does some of the work before getting a check.
But even if Minnesota isn't warm to the idea right now, it might be later. It all depends on how well the Missouri experiment goes.
Jack Basso is with an association of state transportation officials known as AASHTO.
"It's a significant difference," Basso says. "I think the results of that will be very informative, because I'm not aware where I've seen that done quite that way. I don't think we have a piece of history to look back on and compare it to at this point."
In Missouri, work on the bridges should start this spring. Work on the Minnesota bridges will probably take longer, as lawmakers debate the bonding bill.
- All Things Considered, 02/11/2008, 5:20 p.m.