The Hastings City Council is moving forward with hiring a forensic engineering firm to do a condition assessment and forensic structural analysis of the 16th Street viaduct.

Council members voted 7-1 during their regular meeting Monday to approve a retainer agreement with Engineering Specialists Inc. of Omaha. The initial retainer fee — $26,900 — is half of the $53,800 cost for the condition assessment and forensic analysis of the bridge. Councilman Chuck Rosenberg dissented.

Council members voted on March 9 — after a strong response from petitioners — to rescind their December 2019 resolution to demolish the 16th Street viaduct and instead place a repair option for the 85-year-old structure on the November general election ballot.

“We need to find out exactly what its condition is, so we can accurately project what the cost will be as far as the repair,” City Administrator Dave Ptak said. “I don’t want to have any ballot language that would be misleading or cause the public to think it was going to cost more or less than what it is that we have on the ballot.”

If approved, it would be the viaduct’s second major repair, having also been repaired in 1985.

Council members voted 6-2 during their final meeting of 2019 to approve the “tear-down” option of a resolution that also included an extensive repair option; an option for a new bridge with a shorter span; and an option for constructing a new viaduct at a different alignment. The tear-down option was the cheapest provided by engineering firm Olsson, estimated to cost $1.46 million.

The extensive repair option is estimated to cost $3.1 million, and would extend the life of the existing structure 25-30 years.

The viaduct has been closed to traffic since the end of May 2019 based on an engineering assessment that highlighted severe deterioration.

The agreement with ESI includes a Condition Assessment and Forensic Analysis at a cost of $53,800, plus an optional examination using X-ray and/or ground-penetrating radar for possible confirmation of the extent of corrosion estimated to cost $13,971 per pier.

Anthony Siahpush with ESI recommended to council members during their May 4 work session doing the condition assessment, plus an instrument examination testing for three of the nine piers — the one in worst condition, the one in best condition, and one at random. Testing three piers, plus the forensic analysis, would cost $95,713.

Siahpush didn’t have a presence at Monday’s video conference council meeting.

ESI will present the more exact estimate in time to have “not to exceed” ballot language submitted to the county clerk by Sept. 1, which is the deadline to have it added to the November general election ballot.

Siahpush said the initial assessment would take 4 ½ to 5 weeks and testing another three weeks, for eight weeks total. ESI could be ready to go in late May or early June.

Rosenberg, who dissented, asked to wait to spend the nearly $100,000 for the forensic assessment of the viaduct until after voters act on possibly repairing the structure.

“It’s tough times for us now,” he said. “I don’t feel that spending almost $96,000 is frugal when the voters may not approve this.”

He said he talked with petitioners, asking their opinions about a “not to exceed $5 million” repair amount on the ballot. He asked if the repair amount ended up being more than $5 million whether they would agree with the decision to raze the structure.

“All of them said yes, that would be fine with them,” Rosenberg said. “They did not want to spend over $5 million to fix the bridge.”

He said it’s frugal to wait for voters to decide the fate of the bridge before spending more money.

Mayor Corey Stutte said one detriment to waiting until after the election to do the forensic assessment would be learning, after voters choose to repair viaduct, the viaduct has an anticipated lifespan of five to seven years after being repaired.

“Are we really giving voters a full picture of what the condition of the bridge is?” he said. “We’re here because petitioners wanted to put this on the ballot. We have said that this would to have to raise taxes to be paid for. I think there’s been an understanding that there’s a fiscal impact to this. I personally don’t think that raising taxes before COVID-19 was a good idea. I don’t think it’s a good idea after COVID-19.”

During their work session, council members discussed figures separately obtained by both Siahpush and an engineer related to one of the petitioners, that the Union Pacific Railroad will charge $1 million per day work occurs on the viaduct over the railroad.

Ptak said he has talked to a Union Pacific Railroad consultant since the May 4 work session, who told him costs associated with working with the railroad include $1,400 per day to have a flag person there.

Ptak said he was told the total cost to work with UP would be about $50,000, which would include taking an engineering review of the plans and specifications for the repair. It would then go through design and insurance through UP and then enter into a construction and maintenance agreement through the UP call center.

“When you factor that in with the cost of finding out exactly what’s wrong with it it doesn’t add very much cost to be sure as far as what the cost needs to be,” he said.