St. Paul, MN — Two companies the state accuses of negligence that contributed to the Interstate 35W bridge collapse have won a combined $50 million in new highway and bridge contracts since the deadly disaster two years ago.
Minnesota’s continued reliance on engineering consultant URS Corp. and paving company Progressive Contractors Inc. is drawing attention amid a slew of lawsuits filed by collapse victims, the state and the contractors themselves.
Lawyers for the state are trying to recover at least $37 million — the amount the government paid to the 145 people injured and relatives of the 13 killed on Aug. 1, 2007.
While some legal professionals doubt transportation officials could have prevented either company from bidding or signing new public contracts, one lawmaker said the deals pose yet another public relations headache for an agency still on the rebound.
“Certainly, it looks awfully odd to the public that you have got the state suing them on the one hand for doing a lousy job, and on the other hand you keep giving them business,” said Sen. Ron Latz, a Democrat involved in crafting the compensation account for the accident victims and their families. “Either they’re capable of doing the job right or not.”
In a final report last fall, federal investigators blamed the collapse on poorly designed connector plates that held together the span’s steel beams. But investigators also cited the weight of construction material on the bridge as a factor.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation declined to comment on its relationship with the companies because the agency is now involved in litigation with them.
Last week, the state sued URS, claiming it “violated the applicable engineering standard of care” and failed to warn the state “of the substantially compromised and urgent hazardous condition of the bridge.” The San Francisco-based company was hired four years before the collapse to inspect the 1960s-era bridge and to suggest ways to shore it up.
Since the disaster, URS has entered into $6.2 million worth of contracts with the transportation agency, the most recent coming four days before the state filed its lawsuit. The company is involved in at least three bridge projects.
URS officials declined comment for this story.
Progressive Contractors, St. Michael, Minn., was resurfacing the bridge when it broke apart during rush hour. The company and its subsidiaries have taken on more than $42 million in new contract work in the last two years, with seven projects including bridge repair.
Company attorney Kevin Hart said the contracts demonstrate the state agency’s trust in the company’s work, despite a lawsuit the state filed against PCI in May that takes issue with the way the company staged heavy loads on vulnerable areas of the bridge. PCI previously filed a legal claim against the state for failing to keep PCI workers safe.
“We don’t believe that the state actually believes that we did anything wrong,” Hart said, arguing that the state’s case was “a knee-jerk reaction to being sued.”
Terry Ward, a MnDOT construction official, defended the continued use of PCI last year when The Associated Press reported the company was hired to do surfacing work on the replacement 35W bridge.
“They are qualified to bid work. They are qualified to sub-bid work,” he said at the time. “There hasn’t been any direction given to us that they are not capable or qualified at all.”
Neither PCI nor URS are on a list of contractors disqualified from receiving state jobs. That “debarred vendor” list is generally reserved for contractors engaging in criminal activity, violating antitrust laws, performing unsatisfactorily or committing other errors deemed serious and compelling.
As long as the companies prove they have adequate manpower, experience and insurance, they are positioned to chase new contracts, said Christopher Belter, vice chairman of the construction law committee for DRI, an organization of civil defense attorneys.
“You couldn’t shut someone out of the bidding process,” he said, “without having a legitimate reason because the state would be subject to a suit if they didn’t allow them to bid without justification.”