August 14, 2007

Big Dig Official To Run Bridge Rebuild

I guess we can call it the Big Bridge, but that may hit too close to home for J. Richard Capka, the federal highway official tapped by the Department of Transportation to run the Minneapolis bridge rebuilding project. Capka got terminated from that ill-starred project in 2002 and has remained a controversial figure ever since:

The federal highway official responsible for the rebuilding of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge was dismissed in 2002 as chief executive of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority after his leadership of Boston's controversial "Big Dig" tunnel project came under fire.

J. Richard Capka, the nation's federal highway administrator and a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, arrived in the Twin Cities on Monday night in preparation for the first public meeting today on the design and construction of the new bridge. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state transportation officials say they are determined to complete the project by the end of 2008.

Capka, who last week viewed recovery operations in the bridge collapse, said in an interview that his short tenure with the Turnpike Authority ended with his putting together a Big Dig financial plan that held steady for the first time in the project's history. Capka's spokesman, Doug Hecox, said Capka was chosen to oversee the federal recovery and rebuilding effort in Minneapolis in part because he successfully handled transportation issues in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and played a key role in the 1997 federal disaster response to the California floods.

A graduate of West Point, Capka also oversaw an $8 billion Florida Everglades restoration.

The Big Dig is almost legendary for bloated and poor performing government projects. The former Brigadier General of the Army Corps of Engineers ran the project for eighteen months until his dismissal in June 2002. The Big Dig, a series of tunnels that pushed vehicle traffic underground in Boston, originally was supposed to take seven years and cost $2.6 billion, but wound up costing almost six times that amount in more than twice as much time.

Four years after Capka's departure, a portion of the tunnel collapsed, killing one woman as concrete crushed her car. The DoT wanted to put Capka in charge of the investigation, but Senator John Kerry scotched that decision. Local officials also wondered why the Bush administration would have "the coach of the team referee the game," and eventually Capka agreed to recuse himself after criticism mounted.

Capka's other accomplishments apparently outweighed any negatives from his Big Dig connections, and even Kerry eventually signed off on his promotion to run the Federal Highway Administration. Given the nature of this project, a proven leader in engineering projects is essential, especially since the design of the bridge itself has been left fairly vague:

Unveiling vague plans for the new I-35W bridge, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials faced three hours of questioning from Minneapolis City Council members today about the replacement options. ...

Project manager Jon Chiglo specifically warned against expecting a glamorous soaring cable or suspension bridge. Like the bridge that fell on Aug. 1, Chiglo said, he doesn’t “anticipate piers being in the river” on the new bridge. Such footings would trigger all sorts of questions about scour — erosion from the river current — and river traffic.

The state officials displayed a drawing of the new bridge that shows the five lanes flowing in each direction and the connections on the north and south banks of the rivers. The photo looks down at the span. Notably, the span would permanently close 2nd Street S. The plan also contemplates the closure of the rail spurs.

The insistence on using funds for a replacement bridge rather than on mass-transit options has created a stir among the council members and Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak and Governor Tim Pawlenty have apparently sparred over the exclusion of rail options from the new bridge, with Pawlenty insisting that the federal funding does not allow for enhancements. Watch for this debate to continue for the next few weeks, as Rybak may hold municipal consent hostage over the issue.


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Comments (14)

Posted by Del Dolemonte | August 14, 2007 4:51 PM

Wow, good luck with this one. The MassPike corruption has been news here in New England almost non-stop since 2002.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority is a textbook example of how a government agency can be corrupted by political ideology. It's been around for over 50 years, and has long been a safe haven for political patronage jobs. In other words, it's where the hacks go to roost. One of their favorite practices is to pay off the bonds and then promptly issue new ones, thus guaranteeing their future employment. The collecting of tolls along the MassPike was also supposed to have ended once the bonds were payed off, but of course it never happened. Romney almost pulled it off, but his successor naturally didn't like the idea!

The MTA also gets all sorts of money from air rights above the 'Pike (especially in the section closest to Boston, where there are several HUGE buildings including a major hotel built in the air space above the turnpike in the Newton stretch. But we never hear about that income, only that they have to keep issuing bonds so they can keep their jobs.

This of course is nothing new in Taxachusetts, where a totally unqualified person was made head of security at the airport where 2 of the 4 9/11 flights departed from. He was the driver for Republican Governor Bill Weld.

Posted by Gary Gross | August 14, 2007 4:59 PM

Gov. Pawlenty should use his lop-sided 'feud' with Rybak should cause him to hold a series of townhall meetings across the state on the longterm direction of Minnesota Transportation priorities.

I'd love seeing him put Rybak, Larry Pogemiller, Tarryl Clark, Margaret Anderson-Kelliher & Tony Sertich on the record that more money should go towards LRT instead of to bridge & road maintenance.

You know the tide's turning in Gov. Pawlenty's direction when the St. Cloud Times Editorial Board editorial suggests that a special session not be called.

Posted by RBMN | August 14, 2007 5:17 PM

It's an expensive project, but not a difficult project. These days you could just input the desired load and measurement data, and a computer program would design an easy-to-maintain plain-looking bridge that you could pile a mountain of lead bricks on and not worry. Once they have the money in their hands, then it's just a matter of scheduling and weather.

Posted by Graham Storey | August 14, 2007 6:42 PM

This entry is a bit unfair to Capka. By the time he was hired to work on the Big Dig that project was already over budget and over time.

Remember, the Big Dig was a project that Regaen tried to veto in 1987 and work on the project begin sometime in the early-mid 1990s.

Posted by Will Allen | August 14, 2007 9:51 PM

Is a suspension bridge that much more difficult to design, expensive to build, or that much more time consuming to put up? I mean, if this thing is supposed to stand 100 years, is it worth sacrficing any time or money to build something notable, even on a critical crossing like this?

Posted by Adjoran | August 15, 2007 12:07 AM

Hmmm . . . suppose you got a skin cancer - serious, but treatable - and saw a doctor about it, but ignored his advice completely and fought his recommendations every step of the way. Then, later on, you die.

Is it fair to blame the doctor? Well, that's the position Capka is being put in regarding the Big Dig.

Regarding "mass transit," I would have thought forty years and literally thousands of instances of proof would have put to bed the idiotic notion that you can dictate major economic behaviors and ignore markets. "Mass transit" is one of the biggest money-sucking failures of the social welfare state.

When and IF it becomes viable, it will also be profitable. Those who want to throw more public money at it ought be thrown off the bridge.

Posted by Bob Smith | August 15, 2007 2:01 AM

The Golden Gate toll authority also does the bond dance. It too was supposed to stop collecting tolls once the bonds were paid off, so instead of paying them off they extended the maturity date. What a loophole!

Posted by nottomention | August 15, 2007 5:40 AM

Not to mention that the Big Dig has already collapsed, killing one woman.

People in Boston have a pool going on when the entire tunnel system will completely collapse in on itself, killing perhaps hundreds as water from the Fort Point Channel fills the tunnels, which already leak millions of gallons of water ecah month.

Posted by Walter E. Wallis | August 15, 2007 6:42 AM

The SF/Oakland Bay Bridge would have cost half a billion to repair and upgrade from Loma Prietta earthquake damage, but they chose instead a "Signature" bridge, a suspension bridge over a mudflat. I think it is at 5 or 6 billion and counting.

Posted by The Opinionator | August 15, 2007 7:24 AM

Not sure whether Capka is a good hire or not. As a previous commenter noted, the project was already a disaster when he was hired. I did want to add that my cousin is a Union welder in the Boston area and 15 years ago he told me that he and his buddies were planning to retire from that project. As he was in his late 30's I wondered about that and he said they would stretch it out as long as they $27/hour plus time and a half for OT each week.

Posted by nichevo | August 15, 2007 8:22 AM

No offense, etc., but might they consider a tunnel vs. a bridge? Bridges are glorious but a tunnel oughtn't to collapse, at least not to fall ;>

Don't know costs and IIRC a tunnel, for some reason, accommodates slightly less traffic per lane than a bridge. But it might be safer or seem safer...

Just a thought.

Posted by TJ | August 15, 2007 10:13 AM

just a clarification (MA resident): the 'tunnel' did not collapse. A concrete panel, forming part of the air exchange duct system, fell from loosened ceiling anchors - epoxy failure, apparently.

There is QUITE a stretch between a ceiling panel falling to a tunnel collapsing.

Though, yes, the new tunnel system DOES leak more than planned. But, other than one spectacular news report, the millions of gallons are NEVER seen by the public, as the drain system accommodates the water.

Posted by J. Gocht | August 15, 2007 7:53 PM

So what else is new...

Mine Safety Czar Richard Stickler: Another Bush Fox Guarding the Henhouse...

The man who will oversee the federal government's investigation into the disaster that has trapped six workers in a Utah coal mine for over a week was twice rejected for his current job by senators concerned about his own safety record when he managed mines in the private sector.

President George W. Bush resorted to a recess appointment in October 2006 to anoint Richard Stickler as the nation's mine safety czar after it became clear he could not receive enough support even in a GOP-controlled Senate.

In the wake of the January 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, senators from both sides of the aisle expressed concern that Stickler was not the right person to combat climbing death rates in the nation's mines...
The man who will oversee the federal government's investigation into the disaster that has trapped six workers in a Utah coal mine for over a week was twice rejected for his current job by senators concerned about his own safety record when he managed mines in the private sector...

Olde soldier sends...

Posted by OmegaPaladin | August 16, 2007 5:44 AM

I love to hear about how mass transit can't compete with highways. I wonder how well highways would compare if they were not government sponsored. The government actually owns the roads and maintains them with tax money last time I checked. Same with air traffic control and the FAA.
I don't consider mass transit part of the welfare state anymore than roads or sewer lines. While it is not wise to implement mass transit while repairing the bridge - first things first, after all - mass transit shouldn't be ruled out.

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