Iowa DOT director: I-74 progressing, money still in dispute

Iowa DOT director: I-74 progressing, money still in dispute

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More progress has been made on the arches for the new Interstate 74 over the past month than was made all summer.

Even so, it is unlikely the sudden burst in momentum will make up for delays.

"We're 11 to 12 months behind," Iowa DOT Director Mark Lowe said Tuesday of the timeline for bridge construction. "I don't see us, at this point, making up time on that.

"Phase two — Iowa bound — is projected for completion in August of 2020. Illinios bound is projected for 2021 with the caveat we have more complex portions of the project to go."

In a meeting Tuesday with the Times, Lowe spent more than an hour detailing disputes between the state and bridge contractor Lunda Construction. The parties have been in discussions and in negotiations in recent months over money, design, contract terms and building methods.

"We feel strongly we had a good plan," Lowe said of the bridge design, which was created over a several-year process. "Our good-faith dispute with them (is that) it's their responsibility. The means, method and sequence (of building it) is up to the contractor."

Also at issue, he said, is compensation.

While Lunda Construction has a $322 million contract to build the bridge, other contracting companies are responsible for the ramps, approaches and interstate widening and realignments. The total estimated cost is $1.2 billion.

The most complicated part of the whole project, Lowe said, is the bridge itself. The DOT has been saying for at least two years that the basket-handle design of the arches and the bridge deck that is supported by the arches are so specifically engineered, getting the geometry precisely correct is as crucial as it is cumbersome.

It has been Lunda's position, he said, "... (the state) should've given us more erection tolerances for the arches." Tolerances are the allowable variations from the arch plans.

While Lunda has said the arches are "not constructible," the DOT stands behind the design. And Lowe said a distinction exists between the words "constructible" and "buildable."

Asked then to define "not constructible," Lowe said no one is saying the bridge can't be built. Rather, Lunda is saying, "It's not buildable at this price. It's a dispute over compensation."

Lowe then was asked whether the contractor has used delays as "leverage" to get the state to pay more.

"I wouldn't say it that way," he said. "I wouldn't term that extortion. At the same time, we must resolve (conflicts), and work must continue."

And that has been the state's position, he said: The design is complex, but it can be done.

"The DOT's pushback is in the contractor should have known," he said. "(Lunda) wanted contract modifications we were unwilling to extend."

One sizable contract modification that was allowed was for nearly $16 million for additional labor and nighttime work to make up for construction delays that were caused largely by spring flooding. But the DOT was not satisfied that Lunda was making sufficient progress and paid out less than $4 million from that agreement.

In coming months, the DOT and Lunda will continue to negotiate the financial terms of the contract. It will be Lunda's obligation to document its extra costs in achieving the arch construction as designed. At all times, DOT officials have said, the bridge construction is under constant inspection and review to assure it is being safely built.

The state's initial estimate for building the bridge was $386 million, which is $64 million more than Lunda's winning bid. Lowe said he would expect any overages to remain within the original estimate.

"I would consider it a significant number," he said of possible overages. "I wouldn't describe our relationship as adversarial, but there are things we need to resolve."

He also acknowledged "the negotiations could lead to litigation."

Another possible result of negotiations is that Lunda could be assessed liquidated damages due under the contract for certain delays.

Time is an important factor in the financial considerations, Lowe said, because it must be determined which delays are attributable to Lunda, the project owners (DOT) or outside forces, such as flooding.

The current priority, however, is getting the arches built, so the contractor can move forward with the bridge deck, which is the driving surface. That part of the build also is highly technical and is as complicated as the arches, he said.

"Up to a year in advance, the (five) firms were preparing their bids," Lowe said. "Nobody came back and said this bridge can't be built."

And everyone knew of its complications. While the bridge is long and large, he said, it also is "complex and delicate and ... there are no easy pieces to this.

"It's not your average bridge."

The I-74 bridge must be strong, able to handle a large traffic capacity, be resilient and equipped to last 100 years. It must stand up to explosions, attacks, collisions with barges and other vessels, flooding — even earthquakes.

Asked whether disputes over the bridge build are typical or atypical of a large state construction contract, Lowe warned his response could "sound weasely." He said the project has been both routine and out-of-the-routine, because the project is especially complex, which makes it more demanding of detail.

He said Lunda is "a reputable firm" with demonstrated bridge-building success. The company will be required to provide proof of contested costs, and recent progress suggests Lunda has made strides in its methods and sequences for getting the arches built.

"The lessons they've learned should accelerate the process for the second arches (for the Illinois-bound span)," he said.

Despite having recently resolved some of the constructibility issues, Lowe said, he would not expect the belated timeline to gain any ground.

"It's disappointing," he said. "You'd like to just hit your mark."

Asked whether the DOT regrets having chosen Lunda to build the bridge, Lowe replied: "I wouldn't say that. I don't think that would be a fair way for us to look at it. We don't know what could've happened with another contractor."

The bridge-design team was led by Modjeski and Masters, based in Pennsylvania. The firm's founder, Ralph Modjeski, designed the 123-year-old Government Bridge at the Rock Island Arsenal, and his firm designed both spans of the current I-74 bridge.

In its only response to questions about the bridge, a Lunda statement in early November acknowledged "issues with the design" but also offered assurances of the company's intent to continue to work with the state to resolve those issues.


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