JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri lawmakers approved a massive bridge repair project Wednesday that could serve as a national model following the deadly Minneapolis bridge collapse.
The state plans to quadruple the pace of its bridge repairs by awarding a single 30-year contract to fix and maintain 802 of its worst bridges.
The sheer scope and duration of the project is so unusual that Missouri lawmakers met in a special session to waive conventional contractor requirements. The House passed the plan overwhelmingly last week, and the Senate sent it to the governor late Wednesday.
Missouri highway officials had outlined the bridge plan almost a year before the Aug. 1 collapse of a major Mississippi River highway bridge killed 13 people in Minnesota and raised nationwide concerns about aging infrastructure.
But Missouri lawmakers adjourned in May without passing a bill needed to allow the bidding process to move forward. Two weeks after the bridge collapse, Gov. Matt Blunt announced he was including the bridge repair legislation in a special session.
While many states stepped up their bridge inspections after the Minnesota tragedy, Missouri's plan would go further by actually speeding up improvements.
The plan would require the winning contractor to fix or replace all 802 bridges within five years — a task that otherwise would take two decades at Missouri's current pace.
The state would start paying the contractor only after all the repairs were completed, and the contractor would have to maintain the bridges in satisfactory condition for the next 25 years.
"I don't think anybody has done anything quite like this to date," said Dwight Munk, a project manager for San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure, which is leading one of the two teams of bidders for Missouri's contract. "This is really an innovative program."
Munk said transportation officials from a half-dozen states are watching the Missouri plan as a potential model for their own massive projects.
"In the United states, it's very unique," said Mark Wandro, a former Iowa transportation director who is the project manager for the other team of bidders.
Missouri has more bridges in poor condition than all but three other states — Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Iowa. Of its 24,024 bridges, nearly 20 percent, or 4,595, are structurally deficient, according to a 2006 Federal Highway Administration report.
Almost all of the bridges included in Missouri's plan are in poor or serious condition, with cracks and deterioration putting them just a step away from closure.
On one bridge over Interstate 70 near Columbia, an Associated Press photographer observed plywood anchored underneath the deck, apparently to keep chunks of cracked concrete from falling onto motorists below.
The Missouri Department of Transportation's Internet site shows other bridges with gaping holes not far from their traffic lanes.
"As a state, we've allowed ourself to get in a terrible hole with our infrastructure," acknowledged the department's chief engineer, Kevin Keith.
Even with the large repair project, 171 other bridges would remain untouched in similarly serious or poor condition.
The plan largely addresses what Keith calls "routine bridges" — those less than 300 feet long, without environmental concerns and without need of accompanying changes to the approaching roads.
The plan requires the winning contractor to secure its own private financing. The state would then use at least one-third of its annual federal bridge dollars to pay the contractor.
The transportation department estimates construction costs of between $400 million and $600 million for the project. But financing and maintenance costs could easily double the ultimate cost to the state.
That uncertainty has prompted concern among a few lawmakers. Democratic Rep. Mike Talboy, who voted against the bill, called it a "rush to judgment."
Talboy said he doubted whether the plan would have been in the special session if not for the Minnesota disaster, an allegation the governor's spokeswoman denied.
Blunt would have placed it on the special session agenda regardless of the Minnesota collapse, but "it does help build a sense of urgency," said spokeswoman Jessica Robinson.