City has limited time to shape bridge design

Although the I-35W bridge that collapsed into the Mississippi River was in the heart of Minneapolis, city officials have limited power to dictate how it is rebuilt.

The state owns the bridge, giving it much of the authority over plans for a replacement. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) submitted a proposed layout for the new bridge to city officials Aug. 21. After a public hearing in September to gather feedback on the plans, the City Council will be asked to provide municipal consent for the project. That form of consent is the only legal control the city has over the design for the new bridge.

The city’s approval is necessary under the state’s Municipal Consent Law, which requires cities approve projects that alter access to municipalities, increase or reduce highway capacity, or require acquisition of permanent rights of way. Yet plans for the bridge could still change after municipal consent is provided, and the city won’t have the legal authority to demand changes.

“What we’re being asked to approve is something that isn’t 100 percent complete in terms of design,” Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) acknowledged, although she stressed that MnDOT has listened to many of the city’s concerns about design.

Much of the reason the City Council must base their approval on plans that aren’t complete is because MnDOT has chosen to use a “design-build” process rather than a “design-bid-build” process. A design-build contractor is responsible for both the design and construction of a project, with the two phases overlapping. This process typically reduces the time it takes to complete the project and saves money. With the design-bid-build process, separate agencies usually design and build the project and the two phases don’t overlap.

MnDOT has done eight design-build projects, according to a document the department sent to state legislators. The document also notes that the design-build process saves money because the contractor cannot come back to MnDOT when there are mistakes or omissions in the plan.

Using a design-build process, however, does create some challenges in ensuring input from all entities is considered as the project moves forward. MnDOT needs the city’s consent to begin the project, but all of the details of the design won’t be complete when construction begins. While MnDOT will specify certain design elements that the contractor building the bridge must follow — such as the number of lanes and the ability to hold light rail — other aspects will be determined by the contractor.

“We kind of give them an outline, and then they get to flesh it out,” said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht.

The City Council made it clear what it would like to see in a new bridge by approving a set of guiding principles at its Aug. 17 meeting that outlines key elements it views essential in the replacement structure, such as the ability to support light rail and bus rapid transit in the future.

“We needed to get our position out there so we were driving the discussion,” Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) said.

The city’s push for a bridge that is capable of supporting future light rail and bus rapid transit paid off. Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent an Aug. 21 letter to Mayor R.T. Rybak and members of the City Council praising their work and ensuring them that he has directed MnDOT “to design and construct an LRT-ready bridge which may help accommodate our future transportation needs.” Yet he pointedly reminded city officials that estimates show that each day the bridge is down costs $400,000 in daily road user costs. He said other costs associated with the loss of the bridge are also being tallied.

The city must either approve or disapprove of the bridge plans within 90 days of the Sept. 20 public hearing. If the city approves, MnDOT can move ahead with the project. If the city doesn’t approve, MnDOT has several options: it can make any changes requested by the city, refer the layout to an appeal board, stop the project, or prepare a new layout and start the municipal consent process from the beginning. An appeals process could take more than eight months, and state officials have said they want a new bridge up within a year.

“Basically what the city does is says, ‘Yes, you can do this project’ or ‘No, you can’t.’ Once we say, ‘Yes, you can do this project,’ we’re still in partnership but we’ve given our consent. It’s a state bridge and it’s their project,” Hodges said.

While municipal consent is the only legal authority the city has over the project, Hodges emphasized that the relationship between the city and its partners at MnDOT, Hennepin County and the federal government has been strong so far and provides the city with a measure of political leverage as the bride design moves forward. MnDOT is gathering public feedback through a variety of public meetings and comments left on its website, and
Gutknecht said the agency wants to work with other entities throughout the process.

“We want to do everything we can to work with our partners and to work with the city to make sure that we’re providing something that meets the needs of everyone the best we can,” he said.

Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said while municipal consent is a tool the city can use in shaping plans for the new bridge, rejecting the plans is a last resort. The City Council must walk a fine line between ensuring the new bridge includes elements that will accommodate future transportation needs and making sure the city isn’t viewed as obstructing the project, he said.

“No one is trying to obstruct, but by the same token, we can’t appear to look that way either or risk being spun that way,” Remington said. “And the danger is there for that.”

Reach Kari VanDerVeen at kvanderveen@mnpubs.com or 436-4373.