Improving Lock and Dam 3: Design-Build Delivery for Civil Works

On the Upper Mississippi River, the Lock and Dam 3 Navigation Safety Project marks the first time design-build has been used for navigation civil works.
Lock and Dam 3 on the Upper Mississippi River provides essential passage for cargo and recreational traffic. Originally built in 1938, and rehabilitated in 1991, plans also were in place for many years to improve the lock guidewall, realign the channel and reinforce the stability of the lower embankments, but not until Recovery Act funding came available was the work able to be completed. The improvements help navigation tow captains deal with unfavorable currents as a result of the lock being located on a significant bend in the river. USACE PHOTO

When American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding became available, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) St. Paul District was able to approve a longstanding project to address navigation safety and strengthen the embankments at Lock and Dam 3 on the Upper Mississippi River. It would be the first time the district used the design-build procurement method.

Lock and dam management is a major priority for USACE St. Paul District. Lock and Dam 3 is one of the district’s 13 locks and dams and is located 6-mi upstream of Red Wing, Minn. The structure serves navigation needs on the Mississippi River and is a vital link in the Upper Mississippi stairway of 29 locks and dams. The facility includes a lock, dam section with movable gates, spot dikes and a lower embankment system to maintain the pool levels.

The district originally completed the facility in July 1938 as part of the 9-ft navigation channel project. Congress tasked USACE to maintain the channel in the Mississippi River and other rivers. This mandate helped to create a navigable waterway and facilitated commercial navigation and use of the river.

In 1991, St. Paul District completed a major rehabilitation of Lock and Dam 3, but there were two problems that still needed to be addressed. For one, the position of the lock on a bend in the river made downbound navigation very difficult because of an out-draft current that tends to pull towboats and barges away from the guidewall and toward the gated part of the dam. The out-draft current resulted in many accidents, including 11 incidents since 1968.

A crane places stone riprap along the navigation channel in the Mississippi River as part of the Lock and Dam 3 Navigation Safety Project. PHOTO BY VANESSA HAMER, USACE ST. PAUL DISTRICT

The second related problem was a low and weak embankment on the Wisconsin side of the river. Navigation accidents can result in barges being swept into the dam, rendering the four roller gates inoperable. This can cause overtopping and erosion of the embankments. High river or flood flows can also cause water to move through these lower embankment areas. The erosion could jeopardize the structural integrity of the dam and the ability to maintain the pool levels. The failure of the embankment system also could result in an accidental drawdown of Pool 3. This would create significant economic and environmental consequences to the surrounding area—including the Prairie Island Nuclear Power Plant located upstream.


USACE, and specifically St. Paul District, had plans to improve the lock guidewall, realign the channel and reinforce the stability of the lower embankments for many years. The recommended plan included strengthening the Wisconsin-side embankments and constructing an extended landward guidewall with channel modifications to improve navigation safety. USACE had design and environmental permitting work that was previously completed to approximately a 30-percent level. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, the project could not be undertaken at the time.

In 2009, the Recovery Act made available a sufficient amount of funding to complete the work. However, St. Paul District first had to find a procurement approach that would allow for obligation of the funding by a specified deadline, while still providing for completion of the remaining design elements and construction within an aggressive time frame. The solution was to procure final design and construction services for the guidewall, associated channel work and downstream embankment repairs as design-build contracts. Using an alternative delivery framework allowed the district to drastically shorten the procurement time in terms of obligating the funds and getting a design-build team on board.

USACE selected HDR’s Minneapolis-St. Paul office to consult on the project. The firm was tasked with writing two separate design-build procurement documents: one for the Lock and Dam 3 guidewall and channel modifications, and one for the Lock and Dam 3 lower embankment.


After consulting with HDR’s design-build experts, St. Paul District authorized a two-step procurement structure. The first stage was designed to solicit qualifications from a number of respondents with the objective of narrowing down the pool to qualified proposers based on criteria that it jointly developed with HDR. The two-phased approach allowed the district to quickly qualify a pool of respondents capable of accomplishing the challenging projects. The second stage enabled USACE to take the most qualified respondents to provide consistent, comparable price proposals, and to ensure respondents and the district each understood the work proposals in detail. HDR provided expertise in terms of formulating procurement frameworks for alternative delivery, evaluation metrics, source-selection plan elements, and compilation of the overall package frameworks.

St. Paul District staff worked alongside HDR and provided technical materials, details, contract and legal consultation, and review and input on all aspects of the procurement packages.

The Lock and Dam 3 Navigation Safety Project, which included a new 862-ft-long extension to the guidewall, was delivered through design-build contracts, marking the first time USACE St. Paul District had used the procurement method. USACE PHOTO

The district was very sensitive to the needs of the navigation community and the facility needed to be made available during the busy navigation season. Consequently, all respondents had to provide work plans that allowed for efficient use of the overall navigation season. This required them to be ready for winter construction, or possibly able to complete the work during two seasons in order to make the lock available when needed. While winter construction could have been very challenging under typical winter conditions, the weather proved favorable. Minnesota experienced a mild winter that year, giving the contractor a better window to complete the work.

The project was not without challenges—both in terms of procuring an alternative delivery team in a short, aggressive timeframe and actually performing the work in the mandated time windows and under potentially very challenging site conditions.

The first challenge in completing the procurement effort was to formulate design-build procurement packages for the district in a relatively short time frame. To successfully qualify for the Recovery Act funds, St. Paul District and HDR had to take existing design information on the projects—information that had been shelved for years—dust it off, and compile it into two complete, defensible procurement packages within six months. The team utilized the information the district already had developed and integrated it into the technical documentation without re-inventing the wheel.

The district was very sensitive to the needs of the navigation community and the facility needed to be made available during the busy navigation season.

Each of the procurement packages and responses had to be evaluated according to USACE’s strict and objective source selection plan process. This required HDR and St. Paul District to synthesize and detail selection metrics that were available from other packages and create new metrics, as this was the first time this type of selection had been used for procurement of a civil works navigation construction project.

The procurement, design and construction milestones also had to accommodate the need to maintain navigation as much as practical. The schedules had to consider impacts due to winter conditions, and allow for creativity on the part of the design-build teams to adapt to multi-season construction windows. HDR was able to work directly with St. Paul District staff on an individual basis almost daily. USACE staff lent their expertise and resources as sections of the procurement packages were compiled and reviewed. A “one-team” resource framework was used by both the district and HDR. Work assignments and statuses were reviewed weekly. Scheduled tasks were adapted and re-tasked in order to meet the overall quality and schedule targets. The work was done through a Bergmann Associates, Hanson Professional Services, HDR Engineering Inc. Joint Venture, under an indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contract managed by USACE Rock Island and St. Paul Districts.

The need to improve Lock and Dam 3 was critical to enhance navigation safety and to increase the resiliency and value of the asset to the overall navigation community and taxpayers. USACE’s ability to utilize an alternative delivery method allowed it to capitalize on funding that was available during a specific time frame and to see the projects through to completion.

The work was performed without closing the lock to the navigation industry or to pleasure craft operators. Improvements include an 862-ft-long guidewall extension, a closure dike that reduces adverse currents near the guidewall, channel dredging, and the placement of 150,000-yd³ of material.

Annually, 7-million-T of cargo, notably farm products, chemicals and crude materials, pass through Lock 3. Last year, more than 8,500 recreational craft relied on it as well. And now, thanks to nearly $70 million in safety improvements, and a successful innovative delivery approach, one of the most popular and economically vital locks on the Mississippi River is also one of the most modern.

Michael W. Johnson, P.E., M.SAME, is Project Manager, HDR Engineering Inc.; 763-591-5459, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..