Rising Political Stars Wise To Bridge Building

This month starts the final year of the federal government’s main construction materials market catalyst: the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation


This month starts the final year of the federal government’s main construction materials market catalyst: the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act, expiring Sept. 30, 2009. The gateway to fiscal year 2009 was a wild month in national politics, complete with symbolic events impacting members of the transportation construction lobby as they promote SAFETEA reauthorization.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation opened the new Interstate 35W bridge, spanning the Mississippi River at Minneapolis and St. Paul, on Sept. 18 Û three months ahead of schedule and just under 14 months after the predecessor structure collapsed. With a 504-ft. main span, the St. Anthony Falls Bridge underscores segmental concrete building methods’ fast-track potential. Of four prequalified teams, Figg Bridge and Flatiron-Manson Joint Venture, submitted the lone concrete bid against steel alternates. Citing projected lower maintenance in its engineering review, MnDOT chose the concrete package, representing a high bid of $234 million. Market leader Cemstone Products Co. supplied ready mixed for foundations, piers, decks and cast-in-place girder portions, plus a temporary yard near the site for precasting remaining girder segments.

At an onsite press gathering just before the opening, MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel affirmed, Building a high-quality and safe bridge in less than a year happened because of the dedication, professionalism and incredible determination of those who planned, designed and built it. Hundreds have worked around the clock since Nov. 1. Their attention to detail, as well as the project’s extensive safety and quality inspection programs, provide us confidence this bridge will carry traffic safely for at least 100 years.

Joining him for the bridge opening announcement were two individuals who had made headlines just as Flatiron-Manson crews prepared their structure for traffic: U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Sec. Peters’ warning about a dwindling balance in the SAFETEA-supporting Highway Trust Fund compelled Congress and the White House in mid-September to ante up $8 billion to keep the fund solvent. Gov. Pawlenty was a late-stage frontrunner to join Sen. John McCain on the Republican presidential ticket; he had gained VP consideration through a hard line on taxes and spending, including opposition to an increase in the Minnesota motor fuel tax months before the maintenance-hungry I-35W bridge collapsed.

As the governor stood before the replacement structure, another bridge remained in the headlines, thanks to his Alaska counterpart. Accepting the vice presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, Gov. Sarah Palin recalled her role in quelling the Bridge to Nowhere, funded by SAFETEA to the tune of $223 million. The infamous Alaska earmark project has tarnished the federal highway and bridge program, overshadowing more productive repair, retrofit and new capacity work to which much of SAFETEA’s $286 billion has been steered.

The Bridge to Nowhere has loomed as a potential thorn in the side of the federal construction lobby, whose task in promoting strong SAFETEA successor legislation will be challenging enough, considering a) an expanding universe of aging road, bridge and transit assets; b) cement, aggregate, steel and asphalt price inflation that has marked the SAFETEA fiscal 2004-09 window; and, c) the implausibility of a federal fuel tax increase amid current gas and diesel prices.

Thanks to the rhetoric Gov. Palin has offered since her arrival on the national stage, the Bridge to Nowhere might become less of a hindrance to those promoting sound highway bill reauthorization, and more a fading symbol of a pre-reform era in Washington.