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Other states' experiences inform debate over bridge rebuild timeline

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Packed house
A joint hearing of the House and Senate transportation committees was well attended Wednesday. An overflow room was available for those unable to fit into the hearing room. More than a quarter of the state Legislature was in attendance.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

A large part of the hearing focused on whether the rush to get the bridge rebuilt would jeopardize quality. Lawmakers wanted to know if MnDOT was thinking long term -- in particular, would the project be flexible enough to last the 100 years it's designed for. 

There was also the concern about safety. Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, asked how MnDOT can expect to rebuild the I-35W bridge by the end of next year, when the I-494 bridge in her district has seen several delays.

"If we can't build a bridge in three to five years, why do we think we can do it now in overdrive?" Saltzman asked.

Proposed design
A rendering of the proposed design for the new I-35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis.
Image courtesy of MnDOT

 Others pushed to make the bridge more than a workaday replacement for the fallen span, with a memorial to the victims and the capacity to carry future light-rail trains - even if the state has to pay extra.

      "If it was up to us, we'd write a big ol' check and we'd send you out of here with $500 million," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing.

      It was the Legislature's first bridge hearing since the Aug. 1 collapse. The room was packed, the faces of three dozen committee members were grave, and the meeting began with a moment of silence for the victims.

It's safe to say that lawmakers and the public will analyze every portion of the bridge rebuild. It may, in fact, be the most scrutinized transportation project in the state's history. That's because of the factors surrounding the bridge collapse and the rapid timeline set to complete the project. 

Minnesota isn't the first state to set an ambitious timeline. Minnesota Public Radio News spoke with transportation officials in five states that have worked on, or are working on,  accelerated bridge projects. Like the I-35W bridge, all of the projects were heavily scrutinized and heavily traveled.

I refer to the Department of Transportation as LST -- 'Large Slow Target.'" 

Hassan Astaneh, a professor of structural engineering at the University of California Berkeley, says accelerated construction is becoming more standardized in the country. 

"Most major bridge construction companies are now getting the jobs because they have been able to develop the technology for accelerated construction, and come in with bids that they are going to do the job but they are going to do it faster," said Astaneh.

Ananth Prasad, chief engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation, says he has no doubt that Minnesota could finish the I-35W bridge by the end of next year. 

Prasad says his department has worked on several accelerated bridge projects, most notably the I-10 bridge near Pensacola. That two-and-a-half-mile bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. 

Prasad says he wouldn't expect many problems with the I-35W bridge rebuild, as long as MnDOT has their best team in place.

"It's going to be typical bridge construction challenges that you run into," said Prasad. "When a typical process takes 30 to 45 days to review shop drawings and review calculations, obviously here you have to do it more quickly."

Pontchartrain bridge flooded
New Orleans, Louisiana in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showing Interstate 10 at West End Boulevard, looking towards Lake Pontchartrain. The I-10 bridge over the lake was rebuilt under an accelerated construction schedule.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kyle Niemi

Mississippi and Louisiana also worked on accelerated bridge projects after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. The hurricane destroyed two major bridges along highway 90 in southern Mississippi. 

At first, Mississippi officials thought building the bridges quickly was most important. 

"I thought I had the easiest job in the world," said Wayne Brown, southern district transportation commissioner in Mississippi.  "There's a road that runs from Jacksonville, Florida to El Paso, Texas. Two bridges fell down. Let's build them back." 

But Brown learned that rebuilding the two bridges wasn't that easy. He said he was surprised by the tremendous amount of public controversy over the rebuild over issues like the design, the aesthetics, even the size of the bridge.

"I found out the community wanted a great deal of input into it," said Brown. "And you got those areas out there on the side -- I don't mean to call them fringe -- but you have such differing ideas on how it ought to be done. I refer to the Department of Transportation as LST -- 'Large Slow Target.'" 

Brown says he learned early on that it was important to get local units of government to sign on to the project. Without that, he says cities and counties can delay the project by not providing municipal consent. 

Louisiana is building a new bridge to replace the five-and-a-half-mile bridge over Lake Pontchartrain. Mark Lambert with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development said they were able to salvage one of the two spans of the original bridge, and get traffic running again in 28 days. 

Lambert said they were able to re-establish traffic by using portions of the other bridge span. As a result of the repairs, Lambert said  bridge inspectors have to inspect the bridge every day, and close the bridge several times a month to do maintenance work. 

"We've received a lot of complaints about the maintenance schedule, because it obviously impacts traffic. But since the I-35W bridge collapse, we haven't received any complaints about our inspection schedule," Lambert noted.

All of the transportation officials said an incentive package was also an important part of their reconstruction projects. 

MnDOT says it plans to offer incentives to get the project done on time, but hasn't provided specifics. 

At Wednesday's hearing, a MnDOT official said he's talked to all five teams of contractors who want to do the project. He said they assured him that they are capable of getting the project done by the end of 2008.