ST. GEORGE – Plans for a new bridge extending Mall Drive across the Virgin River in St. George may be in jeopardy. Bureaucratic delays are forcing city officials to decide whether to scrap plans to complete the bridge this spring, or to award contracts for a project that has not yet been permitted by the federal government.
Options presented to the City Council in Thursday’s work meeting carry potential costs of millions of dollars over the current estimate of $8.5 million or indefinite delays.
The cause of the dilemma starts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The city has been waiting for Fish and Wildlife to complete its environmental study and permit the project since July. The Virgin River is a critical habitat for the endangered woundfin whose spawning season begins in April, creating a tight window for construction to occur if the permit is granted.
The bridge is planned to extend Mall Drive, which runs along the west side of the Red Cliffs Mall, further south across East Riverside Drive and over the Virgin River. When completed, Mall Drive will intersect with 3000 East at Riverside Elementary School, providing a direct route between the Little Valley and Red Cliffs Boulevard.
City planners have said that the bridge is the key to alleviating traffic congestion in other areas of the city.
“River Road is very congested and reaching capacity,” Public Works Director Larry Bulloch said for the city of St George. As it currently stands, South River Road is the only route across the river for much of St. George. As the city further develops the areas south of the Virgin River, traffic congestion is becoming a real problem, Bulloch said. “This is a relief point we are providing – a second bridge to cross the river.”
The bridge has been a part of the city’s master plan since 2006. Progress on the long anticipated project began to move forward in September, when the City Council agreed to issue $10 million in municipal bonds to finance it. The city accepted contract bids to build the bridge in early October.
The contract is expected to go to Wadsworth Brothers Construction, which bid far below the city’s estimate of $11.5 million. If everything goes as planned, the bridge will be built during the first half of 2014 and cost only $8.5 million.
There are complications.
Before construction can begin, the Fish and Wildlife is required to examine what, if any, impact the bridge will have on the surrounding environment before issuing a permit to build the bridge. The city asked for the study to be conducted back in July, City Manager Gary Esplin said. It typically takes only several weeks for Fish and Wildlife to respond to permit requests, however, the 15-day shutdown of the federal government in October, along with a personnel shortage, has led to significant delays in the approval process.
The City Council has not yet awarded the contract on the bids received in October, Esplin said, because they’ve been waiting for Fish and Wildlife to conduct its study and approve the project.
The Virgin River, which is the only place in the world where woundfin minnows are known to live in the wild, has been declared a critical habitat for the fish. Environmental Protection Agency regulations prohibit construction in the waters of the Virgin River during the minnow’s spawning season, which runs from April 15 until Aug. 15.
“We have to do the work in the river before their active mating season,” Assistant to the City Manager, Marc Mortensen, said. The abutments and pillars for the bridge must be in place before the spawning season begins in April, and in order for that to happen, construction must begin no later than mid-January.
The builders cannot order supplies and materials for the bridge until they have a contract with the city. Although bids were submitted in early October, the city has not yet awarded the contract as it awaits approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
When it comes to complex projects like this, Esplin said, everything is on a timetable. “They’ve got delivery times and deadlines for when they’ve got to get the orders made.” It can take six weeks just to order and deliver the steel before work can begin, which means that in order to start construction in January, the materials need to be ordered now. If the orders are not placed within the next few weeks, the builders will not be able to complete their work before the woundfin spawning season starts in April.
Evaluating the dilemma
During Thursday’s work meeting, some members of the council expressed reluctance to award contracts for a project that has not yet been fully approved. Councilman Jimmie Hughes asked if there was a chance that Fish and Wildlife will deny the permit to build the bridge entirely. Esplin said that, while yes there is a chance, it’s highly unlikely.
“Do we really think we are not going to be able to get a permit?” Esplin said, “no.”
Utah Department of Transportation has sponsored the project, Esplin said, and has already conducted its own environmental study, reviewed the project and approved the plans. However, he said, there is always a chance that the permit won’t be approved by Fish and Wildlife, or that the study will not be completed in time.
“That’s where we need to decide our comfort level,” Esplin said, suggesting options to the council:
- award the contracts now before Fish and Wildlife approves the project
- approve a measure allowing the city to purchase some of the materials in anticipation of awarding the contracts – with no guarantees
- do nothing until Fish and Wildlife approves the permit. If the council waits, Esplin said, the entire project may be endangered.
“We have very competitive bids that have been submitted. If we are unable to act on them in a timely manner, we will have to (put it out for) rebid,” Bulloch said. “There’s a risk that the price will go up if we (put it out for) rebid, “ he said, “and it may become unfeasible as a project, financially.”
The current bids for the contract are so low, Bulloch said, that rebidding could cost the city millions of dollars. If you are talking about an $8 million to $10 million project, he said, then an increase of even 10 percent would be a million dollars. “Right now we are just barely within our budget, we can’t afford for the price of the project to go up.”
The delays at the federal level have caused the bridge project to become fraught with risk, Esplin said. Any decision the city makes will essentially be a gamble. “It’s a crap shoot, folks,” he said.
Because of the time crunch, the council will have to come to a decision soon. Esplin said that his staff would be able to make a final recommendation to the council at their Dec. 5 meeting, after they have a chance to meet with contractors and determine what exactly it would take for them to be ready to break ground in January.
“We need to go back between now and then and talk with the contractor and work something out,” Esplin said. “Then we can come back to you guys and say, okay, now it’s time to build or not build.”
At Mall Drive or not, there needs to be a bridge
As development in Little Valley and Bloomington continues, the commute from those areas becomes increasingly difficult. Even if current plans for a Mall Drive bridge are scuttled, Bulloch said, building a second bridge over the Virgin River is not optional at this point.
“If it can’t get built here, then you figure out a way to build a bridge some other place,” he said. “It needs to get built somehow.”
UPDATE Nov. 20, 2013: City Manager Gary Esplin announced at the city council meeting on Nov. 20 that an arrangement has been made to expedite the approval of the Mall Drive Bridge project by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Officials with USFWS have said that they expect to complete their study within the next two to four weeks, allowing the project to go forward this year, as planned.
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