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The I-74 bridge in the Quad-Cities is nearly done. It will finish up $74.5 million over bid
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The I-74 bridge in the Quad-Cities is nearly done. It will finish up $74.5 million over bid

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The new twin spans of the I-74 bridge are being delivered more than a year late and $74 million over bid.

A "public celebration" is planned for Dec. 1, giving the community walk-on access to the new Illinois-bound span. It will open to traffic in the days following the event, DOT officials said early this week.

Wisconsin-based Lunda Construction was the low bidder for the bridge portion of the Interstate 74 expansions in 2017, beating out four other contractors with a low bid of $322 million.

The Iowa Department of Transportation, DOT, has authorized up to approximately $74.5 million in contract modifications for the bridges, officials said, pushing the cost to $396 million.

Three of the other four bids were at least $20 million under current costs.

George Ryan, I-74 Corridor manager, said most of the increases in cost are "related to meeting our goals of opening the Iowa-bound bridge by the end of 2020 and the Illinois-bound bridge by the end of 2021."

Much of the delay occurred during the spring and summer of 2019, when Lunda and the DOT disagreed over the "constructibility" of the arches as they were designed. For many months, little or no arch work was performed.

In a statement in the fall of 2019, Lunda acknowledged it, "has encountered issues with the design; specifically the geometry of the arch and tolerances utilized in the design."

Tolerances refer to the allowable variations from the arch specifications, which the DOT argued were proper.

Mark Lowe was director of the Iowa DOT in the fall of 2019, and he visited Bettendorf during the dispute.

"We feel strongly we had a good plan," Lowe said of the bridge design. "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."

While Lunda said the arches were "not constructible," the DOT continued to stand by the design. Asked in 2019 to define "not constructible," Lowe said no one was claiming the bridge couldn't be built.

Rather, he said, it was Lunda's position that, "It's not buildable at this price. It's a dispute over compensation."

Lowe was asked whether the contractor had used delays as "leverage" to get the state to pay more, given the company was aware of the specifications when the job was bid.

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

He said at the time that Lunda had sought some contract modifications the DOT refused to permit.

This week, Ryan reiterated that the state keeps close tabs on all requests for bid extensions.

"Iowa DOT extensively reviews all contract modification requests and all payments are contingent upon contractor performance and agreed-upon requirements," he wrote in an email Tuesday.

The DOT's initial estimate for building the twin spans was $386 million. In 2019, Lowe said he expected any overages to remain within the original estimate, which now is exceeded by about $10 million.

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.

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."

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