Futuristic? Drab? Views of the I-35W bridge design put safety foremost

Open house
Linda Figg, designer of the new I-35W bridge, explains some of its features to people at an open house at the Capitol Tuesday.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

It's the day after MnDOT unveiled the design it chose for the new I-35W bridge and artist renderings of the 505 foot, concrete box-girder bridge are perched on easels in a hallway of the Capitol. Bridge designer Linda Figg walks among the pictures and takes time to explain its features to visitors.

One of them is Marshall Burke.

"I'm impressed with it," Burke, a retired iron worker from Woodbury says.

During his career Burke worked on several bridges including the Lafayette bridge. Burke says the new structure has features that make it stronger and safer than the previous bridge.

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"Nothing will happen where it will all go down at once. It will lean on other areas that will help support it rather than (with) one weak point, then the whole thing goes down. I would feel very secure going over this bridge."

The bridge will be supported by two sets of 70-foot piers on opposite sides of the river. There are two different pier designs to choose from. Option A presents more curvy, hourglass shaped piers, while Option B features less prominent curves. The builders will seek public input on both designs.

However, U of M student Hugh Tu has already made up his mind.

"I like the Option A with more curves. The other option doesn't look as sturdy."

The curved piers also fit better with the surrounding landscape, Tu says. But, there are more practical features that Tu likes about the new design. As a commuter who regularly drove over the old 35W bridge, Tu says he's glad that the new bridge is designed to help relieve congestion.

I would feel very secure going over this bridge.

"Before I think it was four lanes, and this is five lanes and I think that's really important. Because it's going about a year before this is finished. We're a growing state and city, so I think we need to widen our lanes by quite a bit."

Across the river at the Dunn Brothers coffee shop inside the new Central Library in downtown Minneapolis, there's no shortage of opinions about the bridge.

"It doesn't make my heart swoon," says Alexis Kuhr, who's sitting in the coffee shop with a battered, aluminum Mac laptop balanced on her legs.

She's glad the design incorporates a pedestrian bridge that can be attached to the underside of the freeway bridge. That will make it easier for walkers and bicyclists to get across the river, she says. But its basic design leaves her longing for more. What would make the design more interesting?

"That's the thing. I don't know that there's time to make it interesting. Maybe they just have to make it work."

A few feet away Richard Edwards offers a critique and asks for his friend Jake McCloud to weigh in as well.

"Looks futuristic," Edwards says. "I was looking at on television and it looks futuristic to me."

"I saw it on the news too," Jake says. "Even though it looks futuristic, it looks rather plain. It's less busy."

Edwards also has a concern about the strength of the bridge. He'd like to see piers supporting the middle of the bridge.

"It doesn't look like it's real solid on those ends there, you know."

However, McCloud reminds him that building materials are stronger than they look.

"Today's technology, you know, they've got that alloy, that steel. It's very light. Space aluminum metal. You know what I'm saying? And it'll be just as strong as the steel from back then."

For the record, the new bridge will be built with a combination of high-performance concrete and steel. The builders say the concrete makes the bridge more durable and adds redundancy to the structure.

In two weeks, the builders will host a series of public design meetings. There people can choose what kind of features they'd like to see, including the shape of the piers, the bridge color, lighting and landscaping.

Bridge construction is scheduled to begin before the first of November and be completed in December of 2008.