Friday, September 19, 2008

Guest Commentary: 802 Better Bridges By Pete Rahn, director, Missouri Department of Transportation

Within five years, 802 of Missouri’s worst bridges will be repaired or replaced. These badly needed improvements will mean crashes avoided, jobs created and the ability to get where you are going easier.

When we launched the Safe & Sound Bridge Improvement Program in September 2006, we sought to fix 802 of the state’s worst bridges using an innovative design-build-finance-maintain approach. We knew it was a bold step - something no other state had ever attempted - but we also knew it would allow us to quickly accomplish what Missourians wanted us to do: fix our ailing state bridges.

We budgeted $50 million a year out of our federal bridge money to pay for the program. In February 2008 we reached an agreement with Missouri Bridge Partners for nearly everything we sought at a cost of $52.7 million annually. Almost immediately the financial crisis our economy has been experiencing began to impact their proposal. Today, payments are estimated at $65 million to $74 million depending upon actual interest rates at the time of financial close. This is just too expensive. It is not the best use of taxpayers’ money and at this cost could threaten highway and bridge improvements in our adopted five-year construction program.

We’re proud to say we’ll still be delivering 802 improved bridges to Missourians in five years – we’ll just be packaging and paying for the work a little differently. When all is said and done, our new approach will likely save taxpayers $300 million to $500 million.

Here’s how it will work: at least 100 bridges will be under construction early next year using accelerated project management techniques; 554 bridges will be included in a single design-build package that will be advertised this fall and awarded in late spring 2009; the remaining 148 bridges will be improved over the following four years also using an accelerated process. We’ll sell bonds and use federal bridge replacement funds we receive each year to make the annual payment.

Safe & Sound has always been about fixing bad bridges quickly and economically, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. The experience we gained from this innovative approach suggests the project is very feasible. We worked with many excellent contractors and designers who provided competitive proposals. However, their good work could not overcome the extreme volatility in the nation’s credit markets.

MoDOT has purchased from the final two teams their technical plans and design and exploration data. This is a good value and will allow us to work with our private sector partners to jump-start this important work.

In the end, it’s not really about which delivery method gets us there, but that we get there, that matters. We promised to give Missourians a safer transportation system by fixing hundreds of our lowest-rated bridges in a short amount of time, and we’ll deliver on our promise.

We are excited to get to work. The sooner these bridges are under construction, the sooner Missourians will reap the benefits - safer roads, more jobs and increased mobility.