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I-35 Bridge: The URS/MnDOT Connection

Category: I-35 Bridge
Posted: 07/09/09 03:17

by Dave Mindeman

Buried in the July 5th Star Tribune was an I-35 Bridge story. I don't think too many people noticed and there was little follow up....but it did ask and raise some interesting questions. The main one being:

Why hasn't the state filed suit against URS Corp?

If you remember, URS is the company that inspected the bridge and made the June 2006 recommendations for repairing the structure. As the Strib article states:

Bridge victims and state officials have both filed legal claims against the company that was resurfacing the bridge when it fell. State officials did the same with Jacobs Engineering, a successor company of the firm that designed the bridge in the 1960s.

But though victims have taken legal action against URS Corp., the state's longtime engineering consultant on the bridge, the state has provided few details to illuminate why it has not pursued URS in court.

URS and MnDOT have had a somewhat "cozy" relationship. Again, from the Tribune:

The state's legal stance may reflect the complicated -- some have suggested compromised -- relationship MnDOT had with the company. URS' project manager on the 35W bridge was Don Flemming, who went to work for URS shortly after leaving his job as MnDOT's bridge engineer. State officials, after making URS its lead consultant on the bridge, steered the company away from a more aggressive and expensive replating project in the year leading up to the collapse.

Don Flemming (state bridge engineer from 1986 to 2000) was kind of his own "bridge" between MnDOT and URS. Could he have been influential in getting URS the state contracts?

Then there is Doug Differt. He was tapped by Governor Pawlenty to be the Deputy Commissioner of Transportation when Carol Molnau was asked to head the agency. Doug Differt worked for URS before his appointment and was rehired after he left his MnDOT position in early 2007.

Is it a coincidence that high profile transportation employees end up working at URS?

URS, Corp and MnDOT made curious decisions relating to the I-35 Bridge. The inspection report clearly stated in the beginning that a replating of the bridge was their recommendation.

In a November 10, 2007 article, the Star Tribune reported:

Last December, after pushing for months to replate the bridge, URS abruptly moved closer to MnDOT's position of finding a less intensive way to ensure the bridge's structural integrity. Three weeks after a top URS official had reiterated that the chance of a bridge truss failure "should be significantly reduced" by the replating, the same official suddenly e-mailed a colleague that he no longer thought the replating was necessary.

It was in June of 2006 that URS made its recommendations for the replating. MnDOT was even going through the intial process to start bidding it out. It wasn't until December of 2006 that the inspection alternative remedy was placed on the table -- and less than a month later, MnDOT chose that alternative.

Once the inspection alternative was decided upon, MnDOT moved forward on their own:

Even the agreed-upon solution -- closer inspections -- did not proceed as URS expected. On July 19, two weeks before the bridge collapsed, URS official Don Flemming was caught by surprise when MnDOT inspected the bridge without the firm. "I saw them on the bridge, and asked if we were not going to get involved," wrote Flemming, who for 14 years had been the state's bridge engineer before being hired by URS.

Flemming was pushed out of the loop at this point. Another curiousity about this phase is that URS had recommended to start inspections on the south side of the bridge... the part where the collapse began. But instead, MnDOT chose to start at the opposite end and then shut down the inspection temporarily when they got half way across -- to allow for the resurfacing project....which of course ended when the bridge collapsed.

All of this leads to a lot of speculation. Why doesn't the state include URS in its litigation? Is there documentation between URS and MnDOT that has not been made public? And the revolving employee doors that exists between URS and MnDOT -- has that led to favoritism in contracts?

There will certainly be litigation on this for years. But in a way, this may be the only way to answer these questions.

I don't think we have heard the end of the URS/MnDOT connection.
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