One side of the story

May 14, 2008

Although the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minnesota attracts much of the local media attention, the Wakota Bridge project has its own newsworthy story of starts and stops, design flaws and political intrigue.

Built in 1959 with two lanes in each direction, the Wakota Bridge on I-494 over the Mississippi between South St. Paul and Newport, Minn., could not handle the ever-growing daily traffic crossing the bridge in the new century.

Although the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minnesota attracts much of the local media attention, the Wakota Bridge project has its own newsworthy story of starts and stops, design flaws and political intrigue.

Built in 1959 with two lanes in each direction, the Wakota Bridge on I-494 over the Mississippi between South St. Paul and Newport, Minn., could not handle the ever-growing daily traffic crossing the bridge in the new century.

In 2002, with plans in hand from design consultant HNTB, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) and 10 primary construction contractors started a major construction project that included separate east- and westbound bridges that would offer commuters five lanes in each direction. Constructed as a cast-in-place tensioned segmental box bridge, the 466-ft main span makes the Wakota Bridge the eighth longest in Minnesota. Like all projects, this one began with enthusiasm and a highly skilled team of construction professionals. That opinion would soon change. Although both east- and westbound spans were scheduled for completion in 2007, construction of the eastbound bridge has yet to begin.

Cracking down

The troubles began in September 2004 when hairline stress fractures were found in the concrete support sections for the deck of the half-completed westbound bridge.

Further investigation by Mn/DOT project managers uncovered engineering design errors in HNTB’s plans. Lunda Construction assumed responsibility for the estimated $20 million retrofit and finished construction of the eastbound span one year later than originally planned. Dennis Behnke, vice president, Lunda Construction, Black River Falls, Wis., recalled, “People were questioning why the cracks were occurring. The first concern they had was that the form traveler was deflecting more than acceptable tolerances. We proved to Mn/DOT the traveler was more rigid than their requirements and was functioning satisfactorily. Because of somebody else’s design error, we were the ones that took the brunt of the criticism for what happened.”

After the grand opening of the westbound bridge in October 2006, Lunda Construction found itself in a situation the company had never experienced before.

In November 2006, Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau canceled Lunda’s contract for the eastbound portion of the bridge, citing rising costs and engineering problems. Molnau directed her department to re-bid the eastbound bridge construction project. Reflecting on the controversial decision, Behnke said, “It was very frustrating. First time it’s ever happened to Lunda. We’ve been in business since 1938. That was the first project that has ever been eliminated or terminated on us.”

Despite an offer from Lunda to complete the project on the schedule for $48.9 million, negotiations failed. While the project sat in limbo, 40,000 daily commuters crawled through three temporary lanes in each direction carved into the new westbound bridge.

Hard work, not feelings

As months passed and Minnesota state legislators bombarded Mn/DOT for an explanation, Lunda Construction entered into a mediation process to resolve the issues. The mediation board was created by Mn/DOT and Lunda prior to the project initiation to address disputes and consisted of a former Mn/DOT chief construction engineer and two former transportation officials from Wisconsin.

In August 2007, the independent mediation board found that Molnau had improperly stopped construction of the eastbound portion of the Wakota Bridge project.

In its ruling, the board stated that by failing to publicly explain why the contract was canceled, Molnau’s decision placed Mn/DOT in breach of contract. The board could not validate Molnau’s claims that the transportation department’s rationale was confidential. The board also found that Mn/DOT should compensate Lunda Construction for expenses incurred because of the canceled contract.

On Friday, Jan. 25, 2008, Mn/DOT announced it had received four bids for the eastbound portion of the Wakota Bridge project. Three of those bids were from Flatiron Constructors, $118.3 million; Edward & Sons, $63 million; and Ames Construction, $62.2 million. The fourth and lowest bid at $60.1 million came from Lunda Construction.

Once fired from the project, Lunda Construction now finds itself gearing up for construction with a bid very similar to what was presented in late 2006. Behnke reported, “Nothing has changed. It’s basically the same project that Mn/DOT had removed from our contract a year ago when we couldn’t come to a negotiated settlement agreement. This ended up a couple of million dollars higher based on material escalators and increases.”

The original estimate for the eastbound bridge was $25 million. Engineering problems, delays and the re-bidding process more than doubled the current estimate.

Behnke quickly pointed out that the company is focusing on the future rather than claiming vindication about past transgressions. “We’re very excited and looking forward to finishing the project. We have people and equipment and everything in place to finish the project. There are no ill feelings; it was a business decision that the commissioner of transportation made. We’ll accept that decision and move on.”

They’re not the I-35W

Scheduled to start construction on April 14, 2008, Mn/DOT and Lunda Construction find themselves in the shadow of the fast-tracked I-35W bridge reconstruction. The often-heard question is, “If that bridge can be finished in a year, why can’t we do that here?”

Eric Embacher, Mn/DOT project engineer, said, “We’re trying to get through this as quickly as possible. When people see another bridge going up in a year we hear questions about why can’t we get this one built in the same time frame. We’re pushing as much as we can to get it done as fast as possible to get it open and usable.”

Behnke described the differences in project management. “To complete a project like I-35W they are working two shifts, seven days a week. In my opinion, our construction employees, like the traveling public, like free time with their families. They don’t want to work for a year seven days a week.”

Fundamentally, the design of the Wakota Bridge plays a larger role than manpower. According to Behnke, “The I-35W Bridge is a precast segmental bridge, whereas the Wakota Bridge is cast-in-place. You are not afforded the same luxury of being able to work on precasting the segmental boxes at the same time you are working the substructure elements such as piers, columns and abutments. In this type of design you basically have to complete the piers and substructure work before you can actually start on the segmental box portion of it. It definitely is a little longer in duration construction-wise.”

Embacher pointed out that the cast-in-place, post-tensioned, segmental box bridge design was needed to accommodate factors outside of commuter traffic. He noted, “The main reason this type was selected was span length and the ability to keep navigation traffic on the river itself during the construction.”

The U.S. Coast Guard required a minimum 420-ft-wide channel under the truss section of the original Wakota Bridge for commercial vessels.

Lunda will restart the eastbound span, slated to be completed by late 2010, with the construction of piers and cofferdams. Given the frustration of commuters, the scrutiny of government officials in the communities affected by the eastbound bridge construction delays and seemingly nightly news updates on the progress made on the I-35W Bridge, Behnke and Lunda clearly feel the need to move quickly.

In support of that mutual objective, Mn/DOT has asked Lunda for a proposal to accelerate the project. Behnke said, “We’re looking at it to see if there are means and methods we can do to get the project accelerated. Whether that’s possible or not we’re not sure yet.”

Lunda has negotiated a supplemental agreement with Mn/DOT that calls for the project to be completed in September 2010, approximately six weeks ahead of schedule. Behnke reported that re-sequencing some of the work will result in the time savings.

Originally part of a $250 million construction project that included rebuilding almost four miles of I-494, constructing 13 non-river-related bridges and the two spans over the Mississippi River, troubles with the Wakota Bridge spans have pushed the final estimated cost to $300 million. For Molnau, Mn/DOT and Lunda Construction, opening the eastbound bridge to commuters can’t come soon enough.

About The Author: Dzierzak is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minn.

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