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Dallas to Calatrava: Redesign within the Budget

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Trinity bridge bids far exceed budget

Dallas: City refuses to go over, will ask Calatrava for scaled-back design

08:22 PM CDT on Thursday, June 8, 2006

By EMILY RAMSHAW / The Dallas Morning News

Construction bids for the first of three skyscraping bridges planned to span the Trinity River came in at twice the budgeted price Thursday, leaving Dallas officials with two options: raise the extra funds or go back to the drawing board.

Dismayed city officials said Thursday evening that they would not break the bank, and instead would ask the bridge's designer – world-renowned architect Santiago Calatrava – to make major, cost-saving revisions.

The earliest a redesigned Woodall Rodgers bridge bid could be awarded is December, officials said. If Mr. Calatrava wants to start from scratch, it could take much longer.

"We're going to build a bridge, a Calatrava bridge. But we're not going to spend any more money than we've got to build it," City Manager Mary Suhm said. "We have a contract with Calatrava that says he will design a bridge for our available resources. If this bridge doesn't meet our budget, he'll redesign it."

Mr. Calatrava, along with city consultants, originally estimated the 1,800-foot Woodall Rodgers "signature" span would cost up to $57 million. The lowest of three bids unsealed by the Texas Department of Transportation on Thursday was $113 million.

"Obviously I'm very disappointed that the bids came in this high," Mayor Laura Miller said. "If it was $60 or $65 million, we could've handled it. [Mr. Calatrava] will have to give us a new design that is within our budget, at his own cost."

Experts blame the difference and the relatively low number of bids on soaring prices for steel, concrete and fuel, as well as the risks associated with building a one-of-a-kind architectural feat.

Others say Mr. Calatrava has a reputation for breaking budgets. The Milwaukee art museum he designed ended up costing nearly four times its original estimate. A footbridge for Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, Calif., came in almost 70 percent over budget, according to local media reports.

And some advocates of the downtown parks project fear the unexpected costs could jeopardize construction of a second planned Calatrava bridge at Interstate 30 and foil plans for a third Interstate 35E bridge altogether.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Calatrava said the architect was in meetings and couldn't be reached for comment. But Dallas officials were quick to say they don't blame him for the cost overrun.

Disappointed officials

When Mr. Calatrava's firm and city consultants came up with their most recent price estimate in the fall of 2005, they tried to take rising steel prices into account, Trinity River Project Director Rebecca Dugger said. Mr. Calatrava made cost-saving changes to the Woodall Rodgers and I-30 bridges, including replacing steel decks with concrete decks, and welded connections with bolts. The I-35E bridge – the third and costliest – has not yet been designed or funded.

The soaring costs reflected in the low bid didn't come as a complete shock to Dallas officials. In March, a high-ranking individual close to the project told The Dallas Morning News that Dallas would never get a $57 million bid. The official said the city would be lucky to get one between $75 million and $85 million and that it would probably be closer to $100 million.

The $113 million bid came from Williams Bros. Construction out of Houston. Evansville, Ind.-based Traylor Bros. and Austin Bridge and Road bid $122 million and $133 million, respectively.

Ms. Dugger said she was very disappointed with the bids. She said it's unclear how much Mr. Calatrava would need to change – somewhere between minor tweaks and a complete overhaul.

Such changes could include scaling down the project's height "from 400 feet to 300, or even 250," Ms. Dugger said, and making it less complex.

"I love this design, and I hate to think we're going to have to get away from it," she said. "I thought it was going to be somewhere closer to what we estimated."

Rising costs

It's a trend Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, sees every day: government agencies struggling with broken budgets in their construction projects.

The reason? Steel costs spiked by about 50 percent in 2004 and haven't fallen much since. Concrete costs have been rising at double-digit rates for a couple of years. And mounting diesel fuel and asphalt prices have compounded the problem.

But there's another factor in projects like this one, Mr. Simonson said – an eye-catching and highly challenging design.

"As contractors look at what they are being called on to do, they may have quite a different idea about time and equipment than the architect, who doesn't actually do the building," Mr. Simonson said.

State transportation officials agreed that the Calatrava project has had a high profile. But there's been concern because Mr. Calatrava's designs use techniques and materials many local contractors haven't worked with before.

Steve Owen, a spokesman for Traylor Bros., wouldn't speak specifically about the construction company's $122 million bid. But he acknowledged that the complexity of the project could have bumped up the estimate.

"It's been a tough couple of years trying to predict and anticipate what a project is likely to cost," he said. "When you have a very unique design that is exciting and interesting ... that can sometimes impact the pricing."

'Bumpy ride' ahead

Ms. Suhm said she and other city officials would spend the next three weeks checking the bids to see exactly what factors drove up the price. Originally, a contract was to be awarded later this month. Now, the bids opened Thursday will likely be rejected.

"This is an issue all contracting people are dealing with," Ms. Suhm said. "Even the cost of doing a plain-Jane TxDOT bridge has gone up 35 or 40 percent."

The $57 million set aside for construction of the Woodall Rodgers bridge includes $28 million from the city's 1998 bond program, a $12 million donation from Hunt Petroleum and $8 million from federal transportation appropriations. The remaining $9 million comes from a combination of state and regional grants and other contributions.

Trinity Trust Foundation President Gail Thomas said she had remained optimistic about the cost – until she got word of the bids.

"I just said, 'Oh my goodness. Whoa. This is going to be a bumpy ride,' " Ms. Thomas said. "But we're committed, and we're going to build this bridge."

She said raising more private dollars to meet the new price tag is out of the question, and going back to the drawing board is the only solution. And she vowed that the city would still get two Calatrava bridges – though most officials agree the fate of the third is up in the air.

"I'm not worried; we'll just go back for redesign," she said of the Woodall Rodgers bridge. "I think Santiago Calatrava is a genius, and anything he pulls out will be fabulous."

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