The first lesson from the bridge collapse rebuild

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.