Seems pretty clear to me that MnDOT has ceased to function in the best interest of Minnesotan commuters and tax payers. They don't even coorporate with our duly elected officials in turning over requested paperwork and reports? MnDOT's Commissioner Carol Molnau must go or does the blame stop at her boss- Governor Tim Pawlenty?
Twice the Time, Twice the Money: What Went Wrong with the Wakota Bridge?
Issue. Why is the Wakota Bridge reconstruction project taking twice as long and costing twice as much as originally anticipated?
Overview. Begun by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) on February 10, 2003, the $58 million reconstruction of the Wakota Bridge on I-494 was to have been completed by November 17, 2007. At this time, less than half the project is finished, and the eastbound span has not been started. According to MnDOT, final completion of the project will not occur until at least 2011 and is expected to cost twice as much as anticipated.
The cost to commuters and businesses for the failure to complete the Wakota Bridge project is $36,500 per day, or $13.3 million annually, according to MnDOT’s calculations. If the project is not completed until 2011, MnDOT projects the cost to Minnesotans and Minnesota businesses of the delay to be $53.3 million. In addition, MnDOT’s internal estimates anticipate increased construction costs of $52.0 to $57.7 million, which will be paid by Minnesota taxpayers.
On June 21, 2007, the House Commerce & Labor Committee sought documents regarding the Wakota Bridge project in an effort to determine why the project is taking twice as long and costing twice as much, with an eye toward preventing similar problems in the future. As a result of MnDOT’s admittedly deliberate refusal to fully cooperate with the Committee’s document request, a hearing was held on October 4, 2007. The results of the Committee’s document review and hearing are set forth below.
Twice the Time, Twice the Money: What Went Wrong? Based upon the documents and testimony of MnDOT's own employees and contractors, there are several reasons for the doubling of the project’s schedule and budget:
MnDOT required use of a suspect bridge design that has failed half the time. Of the thousands of bridges built across the country, a three-web design has been used only six times, according to the Wakota Bridge designer, HNTB. Three have failed, resulting in cracking, requiring costly and time-consuming repairs and retrofitting. Though MnDOT knew this in 2003, the agency nonetheless required use of the three-web design for the Wakota Bridge. Cracking resulted Significant repairs, retrofitting, and re-design have been required.
At exactly the same time HNTB was preparing the three-web design for the Wakota Bridge in 2003, another HNTB three-web bridge in Florida was found to be failing. This did not trigger rejection or greater scrutiny of the Wakota Bridge plans. In July 2003, cracks were found in the HNTB-designed Grantham bridge in Florida, which also used a three-web design and required repairs and retrofitting. MnDOT knew this at the time the Wakota Bridge project was being designed, yet ordered HNTB to continue with the three-web design for the Wakota project, asking only that HNTB review its design plans itself. A MnDOT official testified the agency did not have the expertise to review the HNTB plans for correctness, nor did it opt to have the HNTB plans peer-reviewed. It trusted HNTB.
HNTB admits its three-web design for the Wakota Bridge failed. HNTB officials have openly admitted to the shortcomings of the design and pledged to take responsibility for it.
In addition to design issues, the independent Dispute Review Board (DRB) found MnDOT responsible for seven months of project delays related to other issues. MnDOT insisted that a three-member DRB be a part of the contract with the general contractor, Lunda Construction, with both parties appointing members. In previously undisclosed documents, it was learned that the DRB unanimously held MnDOT responsible for 219 days of project delays. This was primarily due to MnDOT’s failure to appropriately account for a wastewater force main located underneath one of the bridge piers, which needed to be re-located.
Following re-design of the eastbound span of the bridge, MnDOT sought, then rejected re-bids from the general contractor to perform the newly designed, more costly eastbound span, even though the bids were within MnDOT estimates of what they thought the project would cost. Internal estimates at MnDOT showed the agency expected to spend $52.0 – 57.7 million to have the eastbound span constructed. Lunda, the general contractor, submitted a bid within that range of $56.8 million. It was rejected. Another bid of $59 million was similarly rejected. MnDOT made no further counteroffers and nothing exists within MnDOT’s records to fully explain the rejection. MnDOT then terminated Lunda with respect to the eastbound span of the contract on December 27, 2006.
The independent Dispute Review Board found MnDOT wrongfully terminated the contract with Lunda. In a decision dated August 6, 2007, the DRB held MnDOT wrongfully terminated the contract with Lunda for the eastbound span and held that MnDOT was in breach of contract.
MnDOT has inexplicably delayed re-bidding of the eastbound span of the Wakota Bridge for 14 months. MnDOT ordered the contractor to stop working on October 2, 2006. MnDOT finally removed the eastbound span from the contract in December 2006. Since this breach of contract with Lunda in December 2006, re-bidding of the eastbound span has been repeatedly delayed and
now is projected to occur on January 25, 2008. Internal MnDOT documents show the agency has considered delaying the re-bidding of the eastbound span for up to four years, but provides no basis for considering that.
Deliberate and admitted refusal by MnDOT officials to disclose documents related to the Wakota Bridge project leaves open that other possible reasons for the delays and budget overruns may exist. At the 10/4/07 hearing, MnDOT officials admitted they had openly defied the Committee’s request for documents, dating back to June 21, 2007. They repeatedly apologized for this at the hearing. One official stated the agency had, in fact, just found another box-and-a-half of documents for the Committee’s review. Prior to the hearing, MnDOT had claimed some documents were privileged but had refused to even identify those documents or provide the basis for asserting they were privileged. Under threat of a possible legislative subpoena, MnDOT has agreed to provide the balance of the documents related to the project no later than November 5, 2007. This includes key financial documents to determine whether MnDOT does, in fact, even possess the funds necessary to continue the project.
Similar requests for documents, also under the threat of a legislative subpoena if the entities are not forthcoming, have been made to the design firm, the general contractor, and Tom Warne, a MnDOT-contracted mediator for disputes over both the east and westbound bridge portions.
The Next Step. The balance of documents from MnDOT and other entities involved in the Wakota Bridge project will be reviewed, with an aim toward preventing further delays and cost overruns on this as well as other MnDOT construction projects. In the event any of the parties fail to cooperate with document requests, the Chair intends to pursue issuance of legislative subpoenas.
 MnDOT contract with Lunda sent 9/12/02 and internal document titled “Settlement Options,” dated 12/10/06
 Settlement Options document, 12/10/06
 MnDOT Office of Investment Management document, 3/8/06
 Settlement Options document, 12/10/06
 Correspondence from Chair J. Atkins to Commissioner C. Molnau, 6/21/07
 Testimony of Betsy Parker, MnDOT Government and Community Relations Director, 10/4/07. See also correspondence from Chair Atkins to MnDOT officials, 9/5/07
 Testimony of Ken Price, HNTB, 10/4/07
 In addition to the Wakota Bridge, Florida’s Grantham Bridge and Texas’s Houston Chronicle Bridge have also required repairs and retrofitting.
 Testimony of Ken Price, HNTB, 10/4/07
 Testimony of Dan Dorgan, MnDOT, 10/4/07
 HNTB correspondence, dated 5/17/05.
 Recommendation of Disputes Review Board #1, 5/9/05.
 Settlement Option document, 12/10/06.
 Correspondence from D. Behnke to Commissioner C. Molnau, 11/20/06.
 Correspondence from Commissioner C. Molnau to D. Behnke, 12/27/06.
 Recommendation #2 of Disputes Review Board, 9/27/07.
 Correspondence from Liz Benjamin to Dennis Behnke, 10/2/06.
 Testimony of Khani Sahebjam, MnDOT, 10/4/07.
 Internal MnDOT document titled "Wakota Bridge Situation," 12/13/05.
 Testimony of Betsy Parker, 10/4/07; Testimony of Commissioner C. Molnau, 10/4/07.
 Testimony of Betsy Parker, 10/4/07.
 Testimony of Bob McFarlin, MnDOT, 10/4/07.
 Correspondence from Chair J. Atkins to HNTB Corporation Lunda Construction and Tom Warne, 10/9/07.