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Monday, January 14, 2008

MnDOT's Stairway To...Well, Not Heaven

MnDOT - the Minnesota Department of Transportation - spent $157,400 for a temporary wooden staircase which provided access for workers to and from the MnDOT "command center" to the Mississippi River's edge at the site of the August 1, 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge outside the city of Minneapolis.

It's an unpainted wooden structure comprised of 120 steps, a cost of approximately $1,311 per step.

The contractor was Graham Penn-Co Construction, Inc. of Eagan, Minnesota. Nice work if you can get it.

A story in the the Sunday Minneapolis Red Star North Korean Tribune (if the link asks you to register - for free - to read the story and you don't want to do that, do a search on Google news for the headline: State's tab for steps at 35W bridge site: $1,311 per tread) reports that, "A review of invoices and receipts shows that the contractor charged for the most basic of tools that even a small-scale firm typically would already own," included the following items:

    ...two long-handled shovels, two automatic nail guns costing $459 each, two sledgehammer, a pick-ax, a post-hole digger, a rake, a chainsaw and a reciprocating saw.


    [A] $95 10-gallon water cooler, $20 for a cup holder and $7 for paper cups.

    Dave Lenss, the company's project manager, said the costs were justified given what MnDOT was asking them to do.

    "We were asked by MnDOT to get this job done as quickly as possible as do whatever it takes," he said. "It was faster to go out and buy some of the equipment than to go back and get tools that were at other job sites.

    "MnDOT never questioned what we were doing and watched us along the way," Lenss said.


    The staircase was built between August 9 and 12. Of the 520 hours of labor charged for the work over those three days, nearly half were charged as overtime, according to Graham-Penn-Co's invoice for the period through August 31. Wages totaled $47,582, including a $10,615 "markup" by the company, according to the invoice.


    Lucy Kender, a MnDOT spokeswoman, said the overtime expense was justified because the state and federal recovery effort was underway 24 hours per day for the first 20 days.


    Several weeks ago, workers tore out a section of the stairway that were reportedly in the way of construction for the new bridge. Kender said it is "unclear" whether the remaining stairway will be used again.

Lucy Kender, the "unclear" MnDOT Cheerleader/Apologist

It's easy to spend taxpayer money - in what some would say is a foolish and irresponsible manner - during a crisis. Especially when the firm handling it, Carl Bolander & Sons, Inc., who sub-contracted the stairway construction to Graham Penn-Co., was hired on a no-compete basis. Why, I bet the taxpayer money used for the staircase made for nice Christmas bonuses for both Bolander & Sons and Graham Penn-

A crisis coupled with panic is always an easy excuse in justifying spending taxpayer money, isn't it? You don't expect Lucy Kender to admit the cost and no-bid process of the staircase was a mistake, do you? She has a vested interest in protecting the reputation of MnDOT, her employer.

A story also appeared in the Saturday, January 12, St. Paul Pioneer Press (aka Twincities.com - if the link asks you to register - for free - to read the story and you don't want to do that, do a search on Google news for the headline: MnDOT defends $157,00O stairs at I-35W bridge site) on the Stairway To...Well, Not Heaven:

    "Temporary staircases probably shouldn't cost that much," said Representative Jeremy Kalin, DFL (Democrat) of North Branch, a member of the Minnesota House's Transportation Finance Committee. "It's emblematic of a larger rush to push things ahead without stopping and taking a breath and saying, 'Can we do this cheaper and more wisely?'"

Far be it from me to agree very much or very often with any Democrat, but Mr. Kalin is spot on.

MnDOT constantly complains and whines it does not have adequate funding for highways and bridges. I guess it never dawns on them that some of the extreme spending they do - like the stairway - could be part of their financial problem. Government agencies and departments don't have to spend money wisely, as a private business must do where the balance sheet must show a profit or risk going out of business.

MnDOT has the money - let me rephrase that - there is no shortage of taxpayer revenue for highways and bridges. The problem is money that is supposed to be allocated for highways and bridges is being siphoned off from the gasoline and vehicle taxes and being diverted to non-highway and non-bridge projects such as light rail and mass transit. And we are talking about millions and billions of dollars here. Instead of whining and crying that they need more money, MnDOT should be fighting to keep the money that is supposed to be theirs - the money that would more than adequately fund highways and bridges which is already there, except their funds keep being raided by the mass transit crowd.

There are at least three things about mass transit that will always be true, until technology improves and changes them:

1) Mass Transit will never reduce any significant amount of highway and freeway vehicular traffic.

2) Mass Transit will never pay for itself or be cost-effective.

3) Money spent on Mass Transit is money taken from funds that should be dedicated solely on highway and bridge construction and maintenance.

If light rail paid for itself or if it was even reasonably cost-effective with a measurable improvement at reducing highway traffic, I'd support it and so would many others who are against it. For a fraction of the cost of light rail and mass transit systems, it would be far better to buy more buses, add more bus stops and add bus-only lanes onto existing freeways. But there is a small cabal of politicians and business owners who - at the expense of the taxpayers - have a wet spot in their undies for light rail and mass transit. We have to ask ourselves what do these people have to personally gain by supporting light rail and mass transit.

The money is there for MnDOT. That the powers-that-be within MnDOT, for whatever reason, choose to not fight against their money being raided by the Mass Transit Crowd is their problem. MnDOT cannot justify asking for more money from the taxpayers. That politics must play a huge part of MnDOT letting their slice of the money pie being siphoned off by the Mass Transit Crowd also has to be an overwhelming factor.

Paying for highways, roads and bridges can also be partially and successfully achieved by bonding - which is entirely a whole 'nother separate post. But this much can be said in supporting financing by bonding: your children and probably their children will be using these highways and bridges, why shouldn't they pay their share?

None of what I write here should be construed or misinterpreted in any way of being critical of the rank-and-file members of MnDOT. This post is aimed at the MnDOT "deciders" - the powers-that-be - who are making some expensive decisions and insincere requests all of which directly and indirectly put the burden on the taxpayer.

Lets price two items: the two nails guns that taxpayers purchased for $495 each and the $95 10-gallon water cooler:

Nail Gun Depot has plenty of nail guns none of which are priced at $459 each.

Air-Nailers lists four nail guns below the $459/ each price.

Remember, all these nail guns had to do was hold two pieces of wood together. This is not some huge or elaborate staircase.

And here is an insulated 10-gallon water cooler listing for $41.95. It's available in Orange/White or Blue/White and it has an optional cup dispenser that you can buy for $9.75! Yeah, $9.75 - not $20.

HERE are other 10-gallon water coolers, the basic ones being far less than $95.

I'm supposed to believe that it was more "urgent" to purchase new nail guns, a water cooler and other equipment than it would have been to obtain these items from another work site? Please...I don't buy it, not for a second.

Well - those two nail guns and the water cooler must be pretty special. They must sing the "Star Spangled Banner" when you're using them.

Once the $157,400 temporary staircase is rendered completely obsolete and removed, it should be reconstructed and displayed at the Minnesota Historical Society as a defining and reminding moment of reckless spending indicative of a panicked reaction to a crisis by those who regard taxpayer money as limitless.



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