It's agreed: Hastings bridge needs replacement, but how to pay for it?

Hastings Bridge
The Hastings Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi River near Hastings, Minn.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

The bridge was already structurally deficient before MnDOT released its updated report. The report just noted things have gotten worse. On a 100-point scale, the bridge's rating dropped from 49.1 to 38.1.

Corrosion is to blame. And it's just adding to the calls for action from officials.

"I would just assume they work on the construction of the replacement now," says State Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, who represents the area.

Under the bridge
A look at the underside of the Lafayette Bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Paul in August 2007. This bridge is also considered fracture-critical.
MPR file photo/Bob Collins

"The right thing to do is to get the bridge replaced. We want it done now," adds Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings.

Even U.S. Rep. John Kline's office agrees "the Hastings bridge cannot wait until 2015 for new construction," according to Kline's spokesman Tony Young.

So if everyone agrees it has to go, what's taking so long?

Last year's I-35W bridge collapse offered a rare glimpse into just how fast government can work. Money was approved for a new bridge within a week of the disaster, but that was for a bridge that had fallen down.

For those still standing, including the one in Hastings, it's not that easy.

Three possible sources of funding have received a lot of attention this week -- borrowing, tax hikes and federal earmarks.

"While the bridge is not in 'new' condition, the bridge condition is not such that it requires replacement in 2008."

The borrowing, or bonding, bill the governor proposed includes $225 million for new bridges, but only local ones. Since the Hastings is a state bridge, the bonding bill wouldn't help.

Unless Rep. McNamara gets his way. He has proposed legislation that would ask voters to approve a change to make state bridges eligible for bonding money.

"We don't want to use bonding to overlay highways or put a surface on, but to think we could use bonding to fund something like bridge replacement, I think is a great idea to be part of the mix," McNamara says.

His proposed amendment needs to come up for a vote in the state House and Senate before going to voters. For now, that keeps the bonding bill off-limits to the Hastings bridge.

In lieu of that, money could come from an increase in the state's gas tax.

McNamara says he supports that idea. So does Sen. Katie Sieben, the DFLer whose district also includes Hastings.

"It's never fun to raise taxes. However, when you're talking about the need to replace the Hastings bridge, there's no denying it has to happen. We need new money in our transportation system," says Sieben.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he's open to a small gas tax hike, but only if some other tax is lowered as an offset.

The gas tax debate promises to last throughout the spring, which means no new money for a Hastings bridge -- at least not now.

That leaves federal money. But don't look for an "earmark" from the congressman whose district includes Hastings. Rep. U.S. Rep. John Kline has said he won't request any earmarks this year.

Kline's spokesman Troy Young says that should not be interpreted as being anti-bridge or anti-federal funding. For one, Young says an earmark would be premature.

"Right now the Hastings bridge project is not far enough along to even request federal funding. For example, the state's extensive environmental and feasibility studies are -- we were told last month -- eight months behind," says Young.

MnDOT declined an interview for this story, but sent MPR a written statement. The statement says the condition of the Hastings bridge is not so poor that it requires replacement this year.

The agency also notes it has started the process of replacing the bridge, and will soon award a contract to a firm to study what type of bridge should be built in its place.

Hastings, by the way, is not the only structurally deficient bridge in the Twin Cities area. The Lafayette bridge and the Cayuga bridge, both in St. Paul, are in the same company.

But even without a new bridge, drivers in Hastings can still expect construction this year. Crews will spend three and a half months repainting and repairing the Hastings bridge, beginning in the spring.

It's a project MnDOT says will insure the bridge remains safe enough for cars and trucks until its long-awaited replacement.