Simplified: Plans to renovate the Sixth Street bridge that connects Phillips Avenue and Weber Avenue downtown are causing a stir on the City Council for two big reasons. One, the project came in way over its initial estimated budget, and, two, it was signed off on so hurriedly that some councilors didn't realize they were giving it full approval.

Why it matters:

  • The original estimate to repair the bridge was $12.9 million, but in a meeting last week, the City Council approved a bid of $21.8 million. It's worth noting only one bid for the project was received.
  • Councilors heard about the bid on Friday, Jan. 13 in an email from Director of Public Works Mark Cotter, and then approved it four days later because the bid was set to expire.
  • Some councilors, including Rich Merkouris and Sarah Cole, said at a special meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24 that they didn't realize they were already committed to the bid before funding had been established.
"I strongly but respectfully object how this came to us and how we handled it as a council," Councilor Greg Neitzert said. "The City Council should not tolerate an enormously expensive and important decision being dropped on us at the last minute."

Why is the bridge being renovated?

The city evaluates all of their bridges every two years, and in 2020 it was determined that the Sixth Street bridge needed to be completely replaced.

  • Cotter said the city knew this bridge should be developed for more pedestrian use because of the additional development around the river greenway and the Eighth and Railroad district.

Why did the price increase so much?

The one bid that came in from SFC Civil Constructors at $21.8 million is a more appropriate estimate than the initial estimate from the city, Cotter said.

  • That's partly because there's a significant demand on bridge builders with five bridge development projects in the works throughout the city.
  • The bid the city received also includes subcontracted work because of the demand, which increased the cost but also means that the total price is more accurate.
  • Cotter also said there's more risk with the Sixth Street bridge since it's over the river, and some of the elements on the bridge came out as more expensive than originally estimated – including costs to bore a hole through quartzite to get a new water main to the under-construction Cherapa Place development.
"There's a number of factors that were identified and ultimately, the estimate certainly appears that it was low," Cotter said.

Where will the extra money come from?

On Tuesday, the council approved moving $3 million in funds from the capital reserve funds to put towards the Arterial Streets Improvement program, as the same amount will be moved from that program to go towards the bridge.

  • Both the Unity Bridge and the Arterial Streets program receive money from the Highways and Street Department, Shawn Pritchett, finance director, explained in a separate email to the council on Jan. 21. The $3 million transfer puts money back into the department to cover what was used to pay for the bridge bid.
  • The public works department also plans to use funds from the Minnesota Avenue reconstruction, which was already pushed back because of a water main pipe that can't be delivered until 2024.
  • Cotter's January 13 email also said the public works department will transfer money from other projects that have remaining balances.

What are city councilors saying?

"We should keep in mind how important that bridge contract is to so many of our citizens, what a large amount of money it is, and to be conscious of our duty and diligent in our duty to find any possible way within the constraints of safety and security to get that project done under cost," Councilor David Barranco said.
"I plan on in the next 30 days bringing my 'punishment' you should say in changing the process, in bringing forth ordinance changes, bringing forth processes changes that tries to change the system so that it doesn't happen again," Merkouris said.
"I have significant regret about how I voted last week, and I just think that the process going forward, we really need to look at this process and not shoving things through because it really doesn't help with transparency," Cole said.

What's next for the bridge?

There's still some uncertainty here.

City Attorney Stacy Kooistra said Tuesday that a councilor can move to reconsider their vote approving the bid. But that can't happen until the next regular at a regular City Council meeting on Feb. 6.

If no councilors who originally voted 'yes' decide to change their vote to a 'no,' the bid will go through and demolition and construction will begin as early as February, Cotter said.

"Waiting and deferring this would not necessarily guarantee a lower price," Pritchett said at the special meeting. "It could create additional price escalation as we go forward."