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Missouri's Innovative Bridge Repair Program Moves Forward

Missouri is about to do what no other state has done: dramatically increase the rate of bridge repairs by awarding a single, 30-year contract...and require the contractor to finance the costs up front. Missouri lawmakers cleared the way for the innovative program about a month after the Minneapolis bridge collapse that killed 13 people. Governor Matt Blunt traveled the state Wednesday for bill signing ceremonies for the legislation. KSMU's Missy Shelton takes a closer look at the bridge repair plan and takes us out to one of the bridges that will get fixed.

You don't have to go very far outside Springfield to see just how bad some of the state's bridges are. Take the two lane bridge on Highway 125 in Greene County. It doesn't have a shoulder and the repaired deck looks like a patchwork. It's a workhorse of a bridge that handles cars, trucks and 18-wheelers. Kirk Juranas, a district engineer with the Missouri Department of Transportation walks through dusty gravel to get underneath the bridge where he points to the deck's underside.

"The deck looks like it's got salt coming through the cracks. It's probably saturated with salt. And we've got a few spots here where the deck's so deteriorated that when we tried to repair it, our jackhammers went all the way through and we had to tie ply-wood underneath."

Juranas says the bridge is safe even though it's badly damaged by the salt the highway department applies each winter. This is one of the 802 bridges that a private company will fix in the next five years. That's much faster than if the state took on the task itself. No other state has ever issued a single contract to repair and maintain so many bridges for such a long period of time. The successful bidder will have five years to repair or replace all 802 bridges before getting a single dime from the state. The state then begins paying back the contractor over the next twenty five years but only if the bridges are repaired kept in good condition. Tony Kane is director of engineering at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. He says Missouri is engaged in an experiment in asset management.

"I've never seen anything like it before. I hope it works. And why I say I hope it works is because the way the states tend to operate is they mimic each other on good practices. So I hope it's successful and more states pursue something like it."

The state projects that the construction costs alone could total 600 million dollars. But critics say it's an estimate and the actual cost could go much higher. Democratic State Representative Mike Talboy of Kansas City was one of only a handful of lawmakers who voted against the program. He says there are other pressing needs facing Missouri.

"I would not be able to ever look my constituents in the face saying that we cared more about potential problems with bridges a couple of decades from now than their healthcare right now."

You might think that lumping together all this work and money into a single contract would lock out smaller contractors. But so far, that doesn't seem to be the case. Art Kessler is the business representative for the carpenters' union in Springfield, Missouri. Kessler expects his members to get a piece of the action.

"I've spoken with a number of our contractors here locally that have teamed up with larger contractors because it's gonna take forces in every part of the state to basically cover a contract like that. So it doesn't exclude any smaller contractors."

The Missouri Department of Transportation will have oversight of the program. And Missouri Governor Matt Blunt says there's an added incentive for good performance.

"The contractors know that in order to have successfully completed the contract, they have to turn those bridges back over to us in 25 years so they've got a stake in how the work is done."

State officials hope that awarding a single contract will lead to greater efficiencies. But critics of the plan say it's so massive that oversight will be difficult. Democratic State Representative Mike Talboy is concerned about privatizing such an enormous project.

"I don't think that handing over complete control of these things to the private sector is necessarily the right way to go about without any sort of real, meaningful discussion on what the parameters are."

The arrangement does place some risk on the company that wins the contract. And that's just fine with Dwight Munk. He's managing the bid for his company, Zachry American Infrastructure.

"By putting the risk where it belongs and who can handle it best, we bring the most value to this program, moving some risk from the public sector to the private sector, onto private financing makes this a more valuable approach for the state."

Munk's company and others will submit bids next month, which will clear the way for this ambitious bridge construction effort to begin as early as next spring.