The new I-35W bridge opens next week and after a pause to remember the victims of the calamity, and tip a hat or two to the people who built the new bridge in record time, it will be time to look back and ask this question: Did the state really have to throw a boatload of money at the project to get it built so fast?
After the shock of the collapsed bridge subsided, the initial reaction was that losing a major interstate bridge through the heart of the state’s largest city would be a nightmare. Traffic would come to a standstill.
There were many heroes in the aftermath of bridge collapse, but some of them have gone unheralded: the engineers and transportation planners who figured out a system that ultimately would make the absence of the bridge an inconvenience to most people. (See the traffic map)
Here were the keys:
Much of the increased service was paid for with an emergency federal grant, so the service increases will stay until the end of the year. Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons told me this afternoon he expects ridership to hold steady even after the bridge reopens, partly because of the increase in gasoline prices.
Hindsight is 20-20 and few people (if any) were predicting that things would be so relatively smooth during the I-35W bridge’s absence.
So little more than a month after the tragedy, state officials awarded a contract for a new bridge to a firm that wasn’t the low bidder on the project. They desperately wanted a bridge completed fast, to avoid the nightmare scenario that, as it turned out, never developed.
The project was originally estimated to cost $200-$250 million. It ended up pushing $400 million. The company building the bridge gets $200,000 a day for every day the bridge is finished before December 24, with a limit of 100 days’ of payments. That’s $20 million. If the bridge opens next Tuesday, as expected, it will open 100 days early.
The firm also got another $7 million for not asking for any more money to complete the bridge.
The losing bidders for the bridge project, also got hundreds of thousands of dollars in walk-away money, to encourage them to bid for the project on short notice.
There was, of course, a cost associated with the collapse on the traveling public. The state estimated it would cost motorists $400,000 a day. Although the delays were not what officials had expected, the bonus payments were calculated by dividing that number in half. Nonetheless, officials are still quoting the $400,000 figure.
Similarly, a truckers association had estimated it would cost $125,000 in lost time and extra fuel. On the other hand, it forced delivery operations to be even more efficient, which may have an added benefit once the new bridge opens.
Could the bridge have been built for less? The losing bidders say it could have. Could motorists have put up with the current situation for months more? Sure.
But who knew?