The first lesson from the bridge collapse rebuild

posted at 8:30 am on October 1, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

Fourteen months ago, the St. Anthony Bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, killing 13 people and severing a major artery into Minnesota’s largest city.  At the time, we feared it would take two or three years to rebuild it at an astronomical cost.  When Governor Tim Pawlenty announced that he wanted it rebuilt within 17 months of its collapse, many scoffed, as it would force construction during our brutal winter months.

In the end, Pawlenty guessed incorrectly.  It took less than 14 months to rebuild the bridge.  The new St. Anthony Bridge reopened for traffic two weeks ago, and Popular Mechanics looks at five lessons for a new era of infrastructure design and maintenance.  However, they also acknowledge a sixth lesson, without which the other five would have little meaning (via Instapundit):

The story behind the story of this 10-lane, 504-ft bridge is one of the most impressive infrastructure projects of the decade—the complete replacement of a major bridge in little more than a year, months before a deadline that was considered incredibly ambitious. When the team of FIGG Engineering, Flatiron Constructors and Manson Construction won the bid for the project, the date for reopening was set for December 24th of this year. During a visit to the construction site in February, we at Popular Mechanics asked everyone we came across, from taxi drivers to sandwich-shop waiters, whether it seemed like a realistic goal. No one was buying it. Minneapolis winters are too cold for construction, we were told. And why should anyone have faith in U.S. infrastructure when the I-35W had been deemed structurally deficient for years—one of more than 100,000 such bridges scheduled for major overhauls or complete reconstruction?

But FIGG, Flatiron and Mason pulled off the improbable, and delivered a new bridge in what appears to be an unprecedented time frame. Along the way, the company drew wide praise from infrastructure experts and fellow designers and contractors, employing as much innovation in its construction techniques as in its project management. Construction began well before the final design was completed, with teams of contractors working 12-hour shifts in brutal subzero temperatures. Three of those teams would drill shafts at the same time, instead of one. When conditions on the ground necessitated a shift in the overall bridge design, FIGG made the adjustments on the fly. By shaving off more than three months from the Christmas Eve deadline, FIGG, Flatiron and Mason have earned themselves a hefty bonus.

Their contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation stipulated an extra $7 million if the bridge opened on time. An earlier opening would mean another $2 million for every ten days before December 24th, with a maximum of $20 million (plus the on-time award of $7 million) if cars were rolling across the St. Anthony Falls Bridge on September 15th. The deal was a doubled-edged sword: If the bridge opened late, the team would lose $200,000 per day. At press time, the Minnesota Department of Transportation had yet to announce the final bonus, but it seems likely that the team will receive either $25 million, or, provided there’s enough good will to forgive a few short days, the full $27 million. However that decision shakes out, the larger world of infrastructure is enjoying a rare piece of good news, and a structure that represents the best the industry has to offer.

So what is the primary lesson of the St. Anthony Bridge rebuild?  Private enterprise works.  Most road and bridge construction in America gets performed by state agencies who subcontract bits and pieces out while retaining the general-contractor role.  In this case, the bridge replacement was so badly needed that Minnesota dumped that model to use one that would produce a bridge in a shorter period of time — and incentivized the contractor to get it done fast.

This same model worked in California after the Northridge earthquage destroyed or damaged vital freeway overpasses.  Traffic, bad enough in Los Angeles even when the overpasses existed, snarled badly without these vital corridors.  CalTrans would have taken years to rebuild and repair them.  Instead, the state suspended its normal laws and put the contract up for bid, and incentivized speed.  The work was done within months, at a lower cost and with at least the same quality as CalTrans work, if not better.

Private enterprise works.  Businesses understand this.  When they need project work done, especially for projects where speed is essential and the work outside the scope of their expertise, they hire contractors to do it rather than hire the expertise onto their own payrolls.  Contractors who fall behind can be penalized or even replaced without having to worry about employment law and other administrative headaches.  They can also get bonuses without invoking other kinds of payroll issues.

Popular Mechanics outlines some fascinating breakthroughs in the St. Anthony Bridge design that will get emulated in the next generation of infrastructure — LED lighting, pollution-eating crystals, less labor-intensive concrete.  Be sure to read all of their fascinating analysis.  However, if we really want to bolster American infrastructure over the next generation, we need states to learn the primary lesson of this project: private enterprise works best, and delivers quickly.

Update: A comparison to the lessons of the Big Dig.  Hint: the big government approach fails — and fails badly.

Related Posts:

Breaking on Hot Air



Trackback URL


There is a general rule in software design; Pick Two – get it done fast, get it done cheap, or get high quality. I hope that it was the fast and high quality.

Imagine this; free market and enterprise work, who would have thunk it?

Geministorm on October 1, 2008 at 8:36 AM

That is why the left is out to destroy it any shape or form.

promachus on October 1, 2008 at 8:36 AM

When the Northridge earthquake hit, the 14/5 overpass was destroyed! Gov. Pete Wilson bypassed the normal rules and had that overpass rebuilt in less than a year. That’s why I love conservative way of thinking! Get the government out of the way and get the job done!

grapeknutz on October 1, 2008 at 8:41 AM

That is excellent,I bet if this operation was
handled by a Democrat,there probably would be
all kinds of cost over runs and a bit of contracter
backroom deal shenanigans,me thinks!!!!

canopfor on October 1, 2008 at 8:45 AM

I love private enterprise, but we structural engineers have a saying; you can have any two of the following: speed, quality, or cost efficiency.

I’m glad they got it open, and in this case speed was for sure one of the two choices. What won’t be certain until later is how much was sacrificed in quality to make that happen. This is not casting aspersions on the design team or contractor; its just odds on likely, given that speed was prioritized above all else.

TexasDan on October 1, 2008 at 8:46 AM

I believe the correct phrase in “Yankee Knowhow”, nice to see people actually employing it in this word of PC nonsense.

Tommy_G on October 1, 2008 at 8:46 AM

The other lesson is “being forced to go with high bids because the grant is for only *insert X* is dumb….

Glad you gophers got your bridge but am less than entralled with the behind the curtain mechanics thereby.

sven10077 on October 1, 2008 at 8:49 AM

Sounds like Pawlenty should handle
the bridge in New Orleans!

The same bridge,GaffeBiden and Hopey
voted no on the repair work of said

canopfor on October 1, 2008 at 8:49 AM

This is similar to the rebuild of the I-5/Cal. 14 overpass and the implementation of rail service north of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The main artery between Northern California and the L.A. area was rebuilt well ahead of schedule, and the rail link, which was supposedly going to take years to set up, was built in one week after the overpass collapsed following the quake. So it’s amazing how quickly things can get done and red tape can be removed when the public wants and needs something and the politicians involved face voters’ wrath if it doesn’t get done in a hurry.

The only thing I wonder about on the new bridge, according to the Popular Mechanics article, is the high tech towers that are supposed to take air pollution from passing vehicles and chemically convert it into salt. Do you really want extra salt falling down onto a bridge — more that the stuff already dumped during snow season — that’s full of metal rebar if you want the thing to have an extended life?

jon1979 on October 1, 2008 at 8:50 AM

Oh for God’s sake, if it was a Democrat in office, they’d be rebuilding until 2015. They’d have meeting after meeting and all kinds of handwringing & cost over-runs etc.

It would be such a revelation if the average American (and Minnesotan) would make note of this and remember that Government fricks up damn near everything it gets involved in. How can demovrats not see that??????

Tim Zank on October 1, 2008 at 8:51 AM

If Ifill has to step out the media will paint it as the McCain camp whining because they were concerned Palin was too lightweight too handle Ifill.

BigD on October 1, 2008 at 8:53 AM

It was during either the Whittier Narrows or Northridge earthquake rebuild that a contractor emerged that achieved the same type speed in rebuilding some bridges etc. The bigger part fo the story was that he had not graduated from high school, but still pulled off this amazing feat.

But don’t tell Kirsten Powers that…she thinks anyone who isn’t intellectually curious is a boob.

csdeven on October 1, 2008 at 8:54 AM

BigD on October 1, 2008 at 8:53 AM

Wrong thread. Sorry, folks.

BigD on October 1, 2008 at 8:55 AM

But, let the Gov handle healthcare, right Libs?

marklmail on October 1, 2008 at 8:59 AM

So what is the primary lesson of the St. Anthony Bridge rebuild? Private enterprise works.

You think roads should be privatized? No.

The real lesson is that roads should be owned by the public, and built by private enterprise.

indythinker on October 1, 2008 at 8:59 AM

There is a general rule in software design; Pick Two – get it done fast, get it done cheap, or get high quality. I hope that it was the fast and high quality.

Imagine this; free market and enterprise work, who would have thunk it?

Geministorm on October 1, 2008 at 8:36 AM

There is a saying along the same lines in Bicycling; Strong, Light, Cheap – pick two.

One thing that certainly helped speed construction of this new bridge was the existing bridge was no longer usable so they didn’t have to worry about keeping traffic moving while replacing the bridge. Keeping traffic moving on existing highways extends construction time considerably when expanding or rebuilding a highway or bridge. In Northern Virginia about 15 years ago they built a new for profit toll road from Dulles Airport to Leesburg. 15 miles of virgin roadway with 7 or 8 bridges and it was built in less than 2 years, contrast that with the expansion of the existing Dulles Toll Road to add a lane from Dulles to Tyson’s corner took much longer because they had to deal with traffic, oh and one was private the other was public.

Sparky on October 1, 2008 at 9:00 AM

Do you think there is a way to privatise this whole financial sector bailout? Or does that only work for infrastructure?

The way I see it, a bridge in the economy collapsed, and it needs fixed. Are we going to want to have the government involved in the reconstruction or let private enterprise do it. Oh wait. If we do nothing, the whole thing is privatised already, so the government really doesn’t need to do anything except maybe provide some extra incentives for getting things pack on track, like a removal of the capital gains tax.

DWSC on October 1, 2008 at 9:05 AM

There is a general rule in software design; Pick Two – get it done fast, get it done cheap, or get high quality. I hope that it was the fast and high quality.

Imagine this; free market and enterprise work, who would have thunk it?

Geministorm on October 1, 2008 at 8:36 AM

As with software design it looks like they started building before the requirements were done, and then had to deal with adjustments when requirements were finalized. Challenging.

A difference is that v 1.0 of a software release is often rewritten near completely by v 2.0 or v 3.0 within a few years. They won’t be able to do that with the bridge.

Also, with software moving quickly can increase the bug count. Hopefully, the quality assurance with the bridge was able to keep up with the pace of the work.

dedalus on October 1, 2008 at 9:07 AM

Sounds like Pawlenty should handle
the bridge in New Orleans!

This was the same method of award for early completion to Boh Brothers on repairing the “Twin Spans”, the IH-10 bridge from New Orleans eastward to Slidell.

Industry has long used this method of reward for innovation and early completion with very positive results. One must consider that it saves money and free up resources of the governmental authority that has to oversee the project.

For eons, the ocean freight business has operated with reward for quicker than normal loading/unloading and penalty for delays.

In the “old” days contractors were dissuaded from working overtime. In today’s world you cannot find skilled workers without working at a minimum of 60 hours per week and paying per diem out of town living expense even if they are not from out of town. There has been a very serious skilled labor shortage particularly with the construction trades who handle building and maintaining refineries, chemical plants and power plants. It is relatively easy to get such jobs if you have common sense, actually work, and can pass a drug test.

Kermit on October 1, 2008 at 9:08 AM

So what’s Pawlenty plan on the economic crisis that isn’t really a crisis but more of a bursting bubble?

– The Cat

MirCat on October 1, 2008 at 9:12 AM

This is the innovation and spirit that is needed to replace the World Trade Center towers. What a tremendous waste of time and effort that is.

sannhet on October 1, 2008 at 9:17 AM

However, if we really want to bolster American infrastructure over the next generation, we need states to learn the primary lesson of this project: private enterprise works best, and delivers quickly.


Read: unencumbered by the rules of political correctness and affirmative action set-asides (i.e., social engineering). To which I can only say – Duh.

Jaibones on October 1, 2008 at 9:26 AM

Note that a lot of that $25-million deadline-cutting bonus went straight to the workers in the form of overtime pay. But just for argument’s sake, even if all of the bonus went to the workers, the company still benefits with greater reputation, and freedom to start other projects sooner.

RBMN on October 1, 2008 at 9:28 AM

NC has been working on I-40 for like 10 years.

Ortzinator on October 1, 2008 at 9:37 AM

Design build was also used on the I-90 Bridges in Mississippi in both Bay St. Louis and Biloxi. Both were built in under 2 years, simultaneously.

McLovin on October 1, 2008 at 9:39 AM

This is completely ridiculous and EXPOSES the Republicans for what they are, free-market enthusiasts.

If the “we are better for America” Democrats would have been in charge, people would have had a job for at least another year. So what if the traffic would have been horrendous, at least government would be paying for it.

Instead, because they did a job so quickly, the company made a bonus,(the horror!) and Minnesotans are driving across a beautiful bridge MONTHS early.

Remind me…… What will the Democrats do for us again?

originalpechanga on October 1, 2008 at 9:58 AM

This is the innovation and spirit that is needed to replace the World Trade Center towers. What a tremendous waste of time and effort that is.

sannhet on October 1, 2008 at 9:17 AM

The problem with the World Trade Center rebuild is the buildings themselves don’t have enough of a constituency of voters to cut through all the red tape and political infighting to get them done quickly. Compare that to the two collapsed subway lines beneath the towers, one of which was the main uptown connector for Staten Island residents and the other the main connection into Lower Manhattan for New Jersey residents.

You had a lot of affected voters here, and as a result, one line was rebuilt in 10 months (in part by eliminating the station at Ground Zero) and the other was up and running again with a new temporary station in under 18 months. The same was true in Northridge and now in Minneapolis — A public works project whose slow progress can get one or more top elected officials thrown out of office will not be a slow public works project.

jon1979 on October 1, 2008 at 10:19 AM

This reminded me of the I-40 collapse in east Oklahoma a few years back.

“The I-40 Bridge Disaster was a boating accident that occurred in Webbers Falls, Oklahoma on May 26, 2002. Traffic resumed Monday, July 29, 2002, only two months after the disaster. The reopening set a new national record for such a project, which would usually take six months” (sadly, from wiki)

You’re right Ed

battleoflepanto1571 on October 1, 2008 at 10:28 AM

and in the oklahoma rebuilding, the crews were motivated not by love of Oklahoma — but by — $$$$. For early finish, they got MILLIONS. For a late finish, or for a poorly unsafe bridge, they had to pay. The crews themselves!

battleoflepanto1571 on October 1, 2008 at 10:29 AM

I have a friend who owns a plumbing business. He loved getting government contracts as his crew could take 2 weeks to do a job that could be done in three days.

Here in Vegas, they have been instituting a flash flood control plan. Between my home and my daughter’s school, they have been burying water drainage pipes and gutters for nearly two years. It’s two miles of road. No penalties for the contractors.

The regional justice center downtown was nearly 5 years over deadline and millions over budget. No penalties for the contractors.

Imagine, they built Hoover Dam under budget and in less time than expected. What has happened?

Jvette on October 1, 2008 at 11:07 AM

Ed, you and Newt Gingrich are (not surprisingly) on the exact same page. Newt used the California bridge (or it may have been an Interstate exchange) as a prime example of “The world that works”. If you have not seen it, search for it on youtube- most excellent.

lionheart on October 1, 2008 at 11:26 AM

So let’s apply this lesson to off-shore drilling for oil. The dummycrats keep throwing up their hands about how it will take 10 years to get the oil out and to the pumps. The bridge rebuild story demonstrates that if the government gets out of the way, we’ll have our oil in two years, tops.

Private sector, baby, Private sector!

Mallard T. Drake on October 1, 2008 at 11:29 AM

If only New York and New York City would learn this lesson already. I spent my 31st birthday at the Windows of the World Restaurant in June, 2001. I won’t be spending my 41st birthday at a rebuilt restaurant because it won’t exist.

hadsil on October 1, 2008 at 12:06 PM

The new St. Anthony’s bridge project is yet another example of how, when common sense comes into play, anything can be done. This use of private enterprise to solve a dire and pressing need is exactly what should be done all over the United States.

Unfortunately, government at every level, city, state and Federal, gets in the way, jacking up costs, increasing the time line and lowering the quality. No wonder all the locals were laughing about the time line because they were so use to their city’s red tape, obstructionist approach they’d witnessed in the past.

So surprise, surprise that an unencumbered private entity could come in and prove them all dead wrong and in spades.

This recent episode of private enterprise making a laughingstock out of state and Federal agencies reminds me of my first encounter with how private enterprise, in this case one individual, saying “get out of my way, I can do it faster and cheaper”.

The year was 1986. The place, Central Park, NYC. Under Mayor Ed Koch (and others), the pathetically run city had been trying 12 years and with a budget of $12 million to simply rebuild the beloved Wollman Ice Rink. 12 years, $12 million and still no rink. Along comes none other than Donald Trump who wrote Koch in May of ’86 saying, in effect, “Look, I want this rink finished before my kid grows up, so let me do it. I’ll do it for free, i.e. at no profit to me, I will get it done in 6 months instead of 12 years and I’ll do it for $3 million, a 75% reduction in cost”.

Now, I’m no fan of Trump. Wasn’t then, still not today, but that guy was better than his word. Like the new St. Anthony’s bridge, Trump beat both the time line and cost. The new Wollman Rink opened, to great public euphoria and with egg all over the NYC government in just 3 months instead of the 6 month self imposed timeline and at a mere $2.3 million, 25% below even his own projection.

See what can be accomplished when government get’s the hell out of the way? And these loons want Universal healthcare? Run for the hills!!

Hazardouswaste on October 1, 2008 at 12:08 PM

Way back when in the first days of Desert Storm I saw the SeaBees unleashed at Diego Garcia and the built a massive pier and a major airfield in the time most government projects couldn’t even get the environmental impact statements and request for proposals out.

Somebody tells me why it takes in some places two years to simply resurface five miles of rural country road?

CommentGuy on October 1, 2008 at 1:38 PM

Note that a rebuild doesn’t have to go through the same Environmental Impact study maze that new work or improvement have to go through. It can take years even to get to the preliminary hearings. Some of the details border on the ridiculous: Bill Clinton signed legislation that requires studies to show that poor neighborhoods will not suffer ‘undue impact’. (Get serious! Many ‘poor’ neighborhoods are semi-industrial neighborhoods. That’s where you WANT to put the roads; they’ll disturb fewer people.) Poke around online for the NY Harbor Freight tunnel or the NY MTA work; the hurdles are nearly insane. And anyone who wants to can delay the hearings, start court actions, or set up protests with the resulting delays costing billions, both to those who need the project or would benefit and to the public treasury as costs rise with time and people are employed keeping the project wheels rolling.

njcommuter on October 1, 2008 at 2:35 PM

Geministorm on October 1, 2008 at 8:36 AM

Years ago I worked in purchasing. One of my best vendors told me repeatedly, I can give you the best quality, best price, or best service.

Pick two.

Some things don’t change.

oldleprechaun on October 1, 2008 at 2:58 PM

With regard to projects like the Big Dig, we should ask whether, over the life of the project, the cost will have been worth it. My take is that it will have been, although that might change if large parts have to be torn up and rebuilt.

On the other hand, when I drove part of it last year, I was appalled at how poorly the in-tunnel sign system worked. Driving behind and between trucks, I could glimpse only one
lane of overhead illuminated sign at a time, and only briefly. But the legend on the sign extended its full width, so that I could see only a narrow part of it.

Dumb. Just plain dumb. But probably exactly in line with DoT standards.

njcommuter on October 1, 2008 at 3:41 PM