Steel delay latest setback for Trinity River bridge

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by By RUDOLPH BUSH / The Dallas Morning News rbush@dallasnews.com

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 11:15 AM

Dallas officials have long hoped to see a signature bridge over the Trinity River rise as a new icon of the city's skyline.

Now they will have to wait a little longer after word came last week that an Italian company is 10 months behind schedule on delivering steel to construct the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge between the Woodall Rodgers Freeway and Singleton Boulevard.

In a memo written to City Manager Mary Suhm on Wednesday but released publicly Monday, a top Texas Department of Transportation official explained that completion of major elements of the Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge - including its main expanse and towering arch - won't be completed in May 2010 as scheduled.

Instead, those portions of the bridge will be completed in March 2011, at the same time approach ramps to the bridge are scheduled to be finished.

"The thing I'm happy about is it does not affect the opening of the bridge" to traffic, said Bill Hale, TxDOT's chief engineer for the Dallas district.

The delay also won't change the price of the project for taxpayers, he said. The project was bid long ago, and price increases will be borne by its contractors.

Construction of the bridge and its approach ramps was bid at just under $117 million, including $69.7 million for the bridge itself and $47 million for the ramps.

Mr. Hale acknowledged that the setback is frustrating for those who see the bridge as a key milestone of the Trinity River Project.

"I know the city and everybody else wanted to see this bridge rising out of the ground," he said.

Indeed, city officials have been so eager to watch the bridge rise that Dallas' official Web site has 24-hour streaming video of the construction site.Mayor Tom Leppert, who has made the Trinity project a key part of his administration, called news of the delay upsetting.

"Clearly, you don't want delays on anything. It's an important part of the [Trinity] project, and we want to get it done," he said.

Around City Hall, and across Dallas, many have invested a great deal of hope in the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge.

Council member Dave Neumann, who heads the council's Trinity River Project committee, promised earlier this year that the bridge alone "will initiate an economic renewal that is long overdue" in West Dallas.

But the bridge is seen not only as an important physical span across the river. Its form has become emblematic of the city reaching for some great symbol of itself.

Its costs have been justified with explanations that it will forever be connected to Dallas in people's minds.

Asked whether the delay was reasonable, Mr. Leppert, a former top construction executive, simply raised his eyebrows and called it frustrating.

Yet, such delays are nothing new to the Margaret Hunt Hill span, one of three Calatrava-designed bridges the city wants to build over the Trinity. Funding for a second bridge at Interstate 30 has been secured, while the fate of a third bridge at Interstate 35E remains unclear.

Largely because of its pricey and shifting design, along with the cost of fabricating steel to build it, the Woodall Rodgers project has undergone setback after setback.

When it was originally conceived in the late 1990s, officials hoped to see the bridge open by 2005, said Rebecca Dugger, director of the Trinity River project.

But Mr. Calatrava's original design simply cost too much to build. A new design also had to undergo several drafts to keep costs down.

The project's general contractor, Williams Brothers Construction, worked to keep steel costs down by negotiating with the Italian fabricator Cimolai.

Those negotiations were complicated under American law, which requires that bids on U.S. projects by foreign steel fabricators must be at least 25 percent less than U.S. fabricators.

It was also complicated for the American firm to craft specifics of the deal with the Italian company, Mr. Hale said. Negotiations over a performance bond, a standard practice in the U.S., delayed finalizing the deal for months, he said.

The latest delay struck a familiar chord in today's market - problems with getting steel. But the specific problem in this case had little to do with increased international demand.

Instead, Cimolai had difficulty creating a model of Mr. Calatrava's design.

Expected to take one month, the model took four months to complete, Mr. Hale said.

By the time it was done, Cimolai was fabricating steel for another project, and Dallas' bridge had to be pushed back.

Kenneth Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, said that while a 10-month delay in fabrication is highly unusual, fabrication capacity is limited internationally.

Mr. Hale said that he is hopeful the setback won't stretch the full 10 months and that delayed elements of the bridge will be finished earlier than March 2011.

Council member Angela Hunt, who has studied the Trinity project and was the key opponent of constructing a toll road inside the river's levees, said she has little confidence that will happen.

"I worry that residents who see these additional delays will become even more frustrated and disenchanted with the project," she said.

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