Thousands of cars and trucks cross the Mississippi River on the Sauk Rapids bridge everyday. The bridge, built nearly 50 years ago, connects the cities of Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud. At times during the morning and the late afternoon, cars come to a standstill on the two-lane bridge and traffic can back up for close to a mile on both sides of the river.
That won't be the case for long. A few hundred yards away from the old Sauk Rapids bridge is the new Sauk Rapids bridge. Its construction is nearly complete and it's scheduled to open in the fall. It took two years to build and cost $20 million.
"Money well spent," figures Clarence Tadych, 77, who says he's watched traffic build on the old Sauk Rapids bridge as the area has grown. "You get all that on there, cars and everything, there's no way in heck that any old bridge like that can handle that kind of weight."
According to the Stearns County Engineer's Office a MnDOT inspection several years ago showed that the old bridge had decades of life left in it. But because of the bridge's traffic problems, local officials worked to get the federal, state and local dollars to pay for a new bridge.
Stearns County Engineer Mitch Anderson says his office inspects all of the county's bridges every year. They fix the problems they can, and replace bridges when money is available.
"These bridges are getting old and have to be replaced, but they are being patched up and maintained as safely as possible or taken out of service," he says.
St. Louis County in northeastern Minnesota has 601 bridges. Some were built as early as the 1930s. County Engineer Marcus Hall says his staff stays busy inspecting and repairing that aging infrastructure.
"We stay on top of it as best we possibly can, and I'm comfortable going over any bridge in the county," he says. "But to get it to the point where we would really want to be, we definitely need more resources."
Hall would like to see $4.5 more a year, every year, from the state and federal government for bridge repairs in St. Louis County.
Of the 13,000 bridges in Minnesota, 1,160 -- 8 percent -- are considered structurally deficient. The designation means some portions of the bridge needed to be scheduled for repair or replacement, and it was on a schedule for inspection every two years.
But U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters says that doesn't mean that a bridge is unsafe.
Dan Dorgan, an engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, says nationally the percentage of structurally deficient bridges is higher than in Minnesota. "Comparing that nationally for a point of reference. Nationally there is over 77,000 bridges that are structurally deficient. That's about 13 percent of the country's bridges.
And while the bridge collapse on I-35 has focused attention on the condition of all of Minnesota's aging bridges, former Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg says the state fares better than most. " MnDOT has done a better job than most of the states in terms of maintaining those bridges, but it's still an unacceptably high number," according to Tinklenberg.
On Thursday, Minnesota Congressmen James Oberstar and Keith Ellison announced they would seek $250 million to rebuild the I-35 bridge. Transportation officials across Minnesota and the rest of the nation say it will take many more billions of dollars to fix the nation's other aging bridges.