Economy making it difficult for Mo. to get started on massive bridge project

The project calls for 802 bridges to be fixed or replaced within five years and to maintain them for the next 25 years.
Friday, August 8, 2008 | 3:03 p.m. CDT; updated 11:26 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ST. LOUIS — A massive Missouri bridge repair project authorized by lawmakers a year ago has yet to begin because of a tight credit market and delays in negotiating a contract.

The plan calls for issuing a single contract to fix or replace 802 bridges within five years and then maintain them for the next 25 years. Missouri transportation officials outlined the plan in 2006, and lawmakers authorized it in an August 2007 special session.

The highway department has been negotiating over the 700-page contract since December with Missouri Bridge Ventures, a joint venture headed by Zachry American Infrastructure of San Antonio.

"We really are reaching a critical path," transportation commissioner Jim Anderson of Springfield told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "This cannot go on much longer. It will fall apart on its own."

In June, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission authorized design work for the bridges to begin, even though a final contract has not yet been signed.

The transportation department estimates repairing the 802 bridges could cost $600 million for construction, with financing and maintenance costs easily driving that price higher.

The state is to start paying the contractor only after all the repairs are completed. So it's up to Missouri Bridge Ventures to secure its own private financing.

Banks and investors have been hesitant to take on much risk.

"To the extent that it's different at all makes it difficult to sell," Scott Colbert, director of fixed income at Commerce Trust Co., told the Post-Dispatch.

Missouri's plan has drawn national attention for its scope and the duration of the contract. Many states stepped up their bridge inspections after 13 people died last summer in a Minnesota bridge collapse, but Missouri's plan would go further by actually speeding up improvements.

Missouri has more bridges in poor condition than all but three other states - Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Iowa. Almost one of every five state bridges is structurally deficient, according to 2007 U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.

Almost all the bridges included in Missouri's plan are in poor or serious condition, with cracks and deterioration.



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