The good news: A Mississippi River bridge painting project that was funded in 2009 and set to be completed in 2011 is finally about to begin.
The bad news: The delays will add more than 40 percent to the project’s cost.
Wikimedia Commons / William Rosmus
|Metro St. Louis, which owns the bridge structure below the vehicle deck, was accused of shutting out a non-union contractor.|
That was the bottom line Tuesday (May 22) as federal, Missouri, Illinois and local officials gathered at the historic Eads Bridge in St. Louis to kick off a rehabilitation project that has lost several years and more than $10 million to labor and bidding disputes.
Shovel Ready—or Not
The historic landmark, completed in 1874, was one of many so-called “shovel-ready” projects approved years ago for federal funding under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA).
The first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, the massive structure is 6,442 feet long and 46 feet wide and rises 88 feet over the water.
Metro St. Louis, the transit agency that owns all of the bridge structure below the vehicle deck, got the green light for the rehabilitation in July 2009, and work was supposed to begin then.
The project includes replacing support steel that dates to the 1920s, blasting and painting the entire superstructure, and upgrading the entire track system for the light rail network known as MetroLink.
In 2009, the Federal Transit Administration called the rehabilitation a two-year, $25 million project.
On Tuesday, it became a three-year, $36 million project.
The interval was consumed in part by a bitter dispute between Illinois and Missouri labor councils over the project’s labor agreement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Monday (May 21) after analyzing documents in the case.
“This issue revolves around a disagreement between the Illinois and Missouri building and construction trades councils about which labor agreement to use to govern any contract we would approve for the Eads Bridge,” then-Metro Board Chairman Vincent Schoemehl told board members in an Oct. 7 email, according to the newspaper.
Photos: Metro St. Louis
|A June 2010 photo shows paint peeling from the 138-year-old Eads Bridge. Federal stimulus money for the then-shovel-ready project was approved in 2009, but the work never began.|
“Several commissioners have been working on this, and I have done everything I can think of to find a mutually acceptable way to move forward,” he wrote. “I believe we have to proceed with this project for the fiduciary health of the agency and the safety of the community.”
The email followed a warning letter in September from the FTA over the project’s continual delays.
Eventually, the transit agency decided to use the National Maintenance Agreement, a project-labor agreement that had been ratified by international unions, the Post-Dispatch said.
But there were other problems.
The project had to be rebid after the initial round of bids came in far above Metro’s initial estimates. Metro officials said their consultants had wildly underestimated the cost of the project’s protective coatings and containment, the newspaper reported.
Others took a different view, however. The decision to rebid rankled Gail Svoboda, president of Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. of Prior Lake, MN, whose $33.6 million bid was the low bid the first time around, in December 2010. Svoboda’s company was the only open shop among the first round of bidders.
|The bridge’s arched design—as well as its corrosion and dilapidated paint—are evident in a 2010 photo.|
Svoboda told the Post-Dispatch that the bid process had left him “very upset” but that fighting it would have been an “uphill battle.” He did not bid the second time around, saying he would not do so “where a project-labor agreement is a condition of bidding a job,” the newspaper reported.
Svoboda said it was “obvious” that his non-union status had worked against him on the project.
Metro project manager Eric Fields agreed. In a suit unsealed in April, Fields accused his agency of illegally rejecting Svoboda’s bid because it came from an open shop, the Post-Dispatch reported.
|Project manager Eric Fields inspects the bridge in April 2010. Fields filed a whistleblower suit, later withdrawn, that accused his agency of illegally rejecting a rehabilitation bid from a non-union contractor.|
Fields withdrew his suit after the local U.S. Attorney declined to join the action, the newspaper said.
After the second round of bidding, officials awarded a $36.3 million contract to St. Louis Bridge Company (named for the original builder of the bridge), of Arnold, MO. Other contractors include Thomas Industrial Coatings, of Pevely, MO; KTA-Tator Inc., of Pittsburgh; ABNA Engineering Inc., of St. Louis; and K. Bates Steel Services, of St. Louis.
Bridge of Firsts
Fourteen men perished in the seven-year, $7 million effort to build the Eads Bridge, which was constructed to link St. Louis with the burgeoning national railroad network to the East.
The Eads was the world´s first alloy steel bridge; the first to use tubular cord members; and the first to depend entirely upon the use of the cantilever in the building of the superstructure. Its piers were sunk to unprecedented depths.
James Buchanan Eads, a self-educated engineer who worked for the original St. Louis Bridge Company, personally made several dives to study the river’s currents in designing the structure.
“Keeping this essential bridge safe and in good working order is not a luxury; it’s a necessity,” Deputy FTA Administrator Therese McMillan said at Tuesday’s kickoff.
“All across America, the infrastructure we depend on, like this bridge, is in need of modernization and repairs. We must protect and preserve all our existing transportation assets—bridges, highways, transit systems, and more—so that future generations enjoy safe, reliable transportation wherever they live and work.”