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Flatiron Nears Final Stages of Minnesota Bridge

Sun August 24, 2008 - National Edition
James Paton -Rocky Mountain News

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) The St. Anthony Falls Bridge is not just another structure. It is also a stage.

Pedestrians and cyclists pause along the nearby 10th Avenue Bridge to watch the construction progress, and hundreds gather every Saturday morning for organized tours. When crews installed concrete blocks in the middle of the new span, onlookers burst into applause, prompting a couple of workers to spin around and bow.

Flatiron Construction, based in Longmont, won the $234 million contract to replace the bridge that fell into the Mississippi River a year ago. The company, founded in 1947, has directed plenty of construction jobs before, but none that captured this kind of attention.

The project also has drawn a few boos. An outspoken construction veteran in Minnesota whose company failed to land the contract has blasted the bidding process as flawed. Even a move to buy trucks in Colorado, instead of Minnesota, has made headlines.

Flatiron Project Manager Peter Sanderson grabbed the newspaper on his desk and pointed to a photo of the nearly finished Interstate 35W bridge.

“Never anything like this,” he said, trying to think of a comparable job in his long career. “The bridge has frequently been on the front page. It’s strange.”

The circumstances are definitely unusual.

On Aug. 1, an American flag was unfurled from the bridge in a solemn ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that left 13 people dead and scores injured.

Minneapolis, at the same time, is eager for the major artery to reopen. Officials across the city have cited significant costs due to longer commuting times and delays for businesses.

The project, the pace of the construction and the people involved have generated interest, too.

The bridge, led by Flatiron and Manson Construction, will be equipped with new technology, including sensors to monitor the structure’s health.

Flatiron, owned by the German company Hochtief, also is set to earn an extra sum of up to $20 million, on top of a $7 million bonus, if it finishes in the middle of September, more than three months ahead of schedule.

As the sun slipped below the Minneapolis skyline on a late July evening, Flatiron engineer Martijn Bolster crossed the 10th Avenue Bridge to point out a few of the project’s features. The sensors will gauge how the bridge responds to stress and other factors and will send the data to the University of Minnesota.

A passer-by walking with her bicycle overheard Bolster talking about “accelerometers” and “post tensioning” and started quizzing him about the construction.

“It’s interesting to see how this all works,” the woman said before pedaling away.

Bolster, the Holland-born design coordinator and drummer in the Denver rock band The Swayback, has been traveling back and forth between Colorado and Minnesota since October. He called it “the ultimate of bridges.”

The workers, some wearing black 35W baseball caps and all now deeply tanned, are confronted on the streets, in restaurants and all around Minnesota’s largest city.

Mick Wilson, a 25-year Flatiron employee, said the “cheese guy” at the grocery store was baffled about how all the 200-ton (181 t) concrete slabs would fit into place.

“Most of the time people don’t think much about what we do,” the Lyons native said over beers recently at the Renaissance Hotel bar, not far from the bridge. “It’s kind of cool.”

The Flatiron superintendent recalled that local subcontractors had warned workers they could encounter some hostility stemming from the decision to go with a Colorado company. But he said the team has been well received.

Steve Hammer, accompanied by his wife and two children, took part in a recent Saturday question-and-answer session on the 10th Avenue Bridge, parallel to the new span. With many questioning the strength of the bridges they cross, Hammer welcomed the education.

“They obviously are working hard on the PR,” said Hammer, an engineer at a nuclear plant. “But they have to regain public confidence, and this is one way to keep people informed. People need to recognize they can trust the infrastructure.”

Another Minnesota resident, Jon Gilmour, snapped a few photos as he listened to Sanderson talk. Gilmour, one of roughly 150 people in the group, cited “fascination” with the project and worries about other bridges “under-engineered and due for replacement.”

“This was a wake-up call,” he said.

The project has aroused curiosity — and some criticism.

After failing to secure the contract, C.S. McCrossan, along with a joint venture between two other companies, protested the decision. They argued that the bidding process was unfair. A state agency disagreed, siding with the transportation department.

McCrossan had submitted a $177 million bid, $57 million less than Flatiron’s and would have finished earlier, too, according to company founder Charley McCrossan. The $57 million and $20 million bonus add up to a considerable cost to taxpayers, he said.

“All four bidders would have built an equivalent product to satisfy the state,” said McCrossan, whose company is based in Maple Grove, Minn. “In the eye of the beholder, they were equal. The state could have saved $77 million by having us do the job.”

Two businessmen in the state construction industry, Scott Sayer and Wendell Phillippi, filed a lawsuit against the Minnesota Department of Transportation, claiming that the decision was made in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner.

A Ramsey County judge refused to stop the work, although he said the state had “cloaked the decision in secrecy” by signing the contract before releasing information on how it had reached a decision.

The bridge may be done before the dispute is resolved. But the plaintiffs, if they are successful, may argue that part of the money should be returned to taxpayers.

“Flatiron-Manson should only be entitled to the value they delivered and that value may well be lower than the contract amount,” said Dean Thomson, their lawyer.

McCrossan said he is supporting the lawsuit, and “if things go our way, we will not get one cent. We would get the satisfaction of having the excess earnings going back into the treasury and of putting politicians on notice. That’s what is in it for us.”

While Flatiron’s bid was the most expensive, it was ranked higher than the others. The state used a formula that took into account a variety of factors, including quality, safety, aesthetics and experience, as well as the cost and the time it would take to finish the work. Public relations plans also played a part.

Jon Chiglo, a native of southeast Minnesota, oversees the project for the state transportation department. On a sweltering afternoon, Chiglo, wearing a hard hat and a brightly colored vest, stood on the bridge and reflected on the past year.

“There’s a lot of emotion behind the bidding process because of the circumstances,” Chiglo said. “I think there’s a lot of pride with the local contractors. They obviously wanted to get this job. I’m sure they were disappointed that a contractor from out of state got it from them, but that’s the way the process works.”

Over the din of construction and trucks backing up on the bridge, Chiglo highlighted a number “innovations,” such as the sensors, a de-icing system and LED lights.

The Flatiron-Manson team “solved more problems than anybody else,” he said, “and committed to doing a very high-quality product and doing it safely. It’s a competitive process. We have good local contractors, but we don’t give favoritism to local contractors.”

A Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist, responding to a tip from a reader, wrote a critical piece last October questioning the move to bring in trucks from Colorado.

Flatiron representatives said a Minnesota truck dealer couldn’t match the price offered by a Colorado outfit. They also noted that, at the peak, about 85 percent of the workers were Minnesotans. (One company that has a role in the project, Progressive Contractors, was doing resurfacing of the old bridge when it fell).

In another story in the Minneapolis paper, the construction veteran McCrossan criticized what he said was a costly PR effort and mocked the firm Himle Horner for promoting mundane developments in the project.

“Gosh, they poured 100 yards of concrete, isn’t that something?” he told the paper. “It’s no more tricky than having breakfast.”

Sanderson, the Flatiron manager, responded with a sense of humor, ordering golf shirts with the company’s name on the front and the breakfast quip stitched onto the back. Asked about the quote on his shirt, Sanderson produced a copy of the story and grinned.

“His company lost,” he said.

The project continues to face scrutiny. When a worker suffered a minor injury, dislocating his shoulder, local media were all over the story. Flatiron-Manson reports 25 injuries and three more among its subcontractors.

Residents have not ignored the controversy, although they expressed more interest in remembering those who died and in when the job would be done.

The new St. Anthony Falls Bridge is more than 90 percent finished. Workers have toiled through a brutally cold winter and a sizzling summer, day and night, toward a mid-September target. But the construction still could extend into the fall.

Sanderson, born in Britain and educated in Western Australia, has driven the crew, more than 600 construction workers at the peak, to reach that goal.

The veteran engineer served as a Flatiron executive for most of the 1990s and has worked as a consultant over the past few years. After the bridge plunged into the river, Flatiron phoned Sanderson to ask if he would be interested in directing the high-profile project. At the time, he was in India analyzing a potential construction job in the Arabian Sea.

“I realized there was opportunity for me in the U.S.,” he said, “and I figured finally this would shake up a few politicians. … This country needs to spend far, far more than it does on infrastructure and particularly on bridges. Many bridges are 40 years old.”

Roughly a quarter of the country’s 600,000 bridges are structurally deficient or obsolete, the Federal Highway Administration estimated, but government officials have said that the situation is improving.

Sanderson, who has a home in Cherry Creek and another on Australia’s Magnetic Island, said the focus on upgrading infrastructure could mean more work.

Any new business for companies like Flatiron, which derives nearly half of its revenue from bridges, could be at least partially offset by economic woes.

Flatiron’s sales are projected to grow to $900 million this year from about $750 million in 2007, but costs are rising at a faster clip and states may not be able to find the money to fund such expensive work, according to the company’s CEO Tom Rademacher.

Flatiron declined to say how much profit it expects to reel in from the bridge. But the result should be “in line” with the company’s projections, Rademacher said.

“There has been a lot of talk about the incentive bonuses, but the majority of that money is going to pay for the acceleration of the project,” Rademacher said.

Sanderson, Bolster, Wilson and others involved in the bridge will move on to other jobs, some much larger than this one. Flatiron just won a $976 million deal to build a stretch of a new road around the city of Edmonton, Alberta. Any day Flatiron will learn whether it will get a piece of a $2.5 billion highway project in Vancouver, British Columbia.

But the 35W bridge, expected to last 100 years, is not one they will soon forget.

A framed New York Times story hangs on a wall in Sanderson’s office, along with drawings of other spans and a photo of the Minneapolis bridge taken two days after the collapse. He smiled as he looked back on the buzz the bridge has stirred, including the time people cheered from the nearby vantage point.

“I think all the attention is good,” he said. “I’m glad people are interested.”

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