Mo. Senate OKs big bridge repair plan

Project could serve as national model following Minneapolis bridge collapse

News St. Louis Post-Dispatch August 30, 2007
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While many states stepped up their bridge inspections after the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Missouri has a plan to go further by actually speeding up improvements.

State lawmakers approved a massive bridge repair project Aug. 29 that could serve as a national model following the collapse.

Missouri plans to quadruple the pace of its bridge repairs by awarding a single 30-year contract to fix and maintain 802 of its worst bridges.

Missouri highway officials had outlined the bridge plan almost a year before the Aug. 1 collapse, but state lawmakers adjourned in May without passing a bill needed to allow the bidding process to move forward.

Two weeks after the bridge collapse, Gov. Matt Blunt announced he was including the bridge repair legislation in a special session. The House passed the plan overwhelmingly last week. The Senate sent it onto the governor late Wednesday night without any objections.

Missouri has more bridges in poor condition than any other state aside from Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Iowa. According to a 2006 Federal Highway Administration report, out of its 24,024 bridges, nearly 20%, or 4,595, are structurally deficient.

Almost all of the bridges included in the plan are in poor or serious condition, with cracks and deterioration putting them close to closure.

"As a state, we've allowed [ourselves] to get in a terrible hole with our infrastructure," said the department's chief engineer Kevin Keith.

The bridge repair project is so unusual that Missouri lawmakers are meeting in a special session to waive conventional contractor requirements.

The plan would require the winning contractor to fix or replace all 802 bridges within five years—a task that would take two decades at Missouri's current pace.

The state would start paying the contractor only after all the repairs were completed. The contractor also would have to maintain the bridges in satisfactory condition for the next 25 years.

"I don't think anybody has done anything quite like this to date," said Dwight Munk, a project manager for San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure, which is leading one of the two teams of bidders for Missouri's contract. "This is really an innovative program."

The plan requires the winning contractor to secure its own private financing. The state would then use at least one-third of its annual federal bridge dollars to pay the contractor.

MnDOT estimates construction costs of between $400 million and $600 million for the project. But financing and maintenance costs could double the ultimate cost to the state.

That uncertainty has prompted concern among a few lawmakers. Democratic Rep. Mike Talboy, who voted against the bill, called it a "rush to judgment."

Talboy questioned whether the plan would have been in the special session if not for the Minnesota disaster, an allegation the governor's spokeswoman Jessica Robinson denied.

Blunt would have placed it on the special session agenda regardless of the Minnesota collapse, but "it does help build a sense of urgency," Robinson said.

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