St. Cloud residents worry about bridge closure

DeSoto bridge detour
Officials posted barricades to redirect traffic after closing the DeSoto Bridge on Thursday. MnDOT officials report 31,000 vehicles per-day cross the bridge.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

At a late press conference in St. Cloud, state transportation officials were cautiously optimistic about the sudden bridge closure.

MnDot engineer Bob Busch said the agency acted quickly to divert traffic and place extra signs around St. Cloud. He was pleased that evening commuters were taking the changes in stride.

"People are finding other ways to get around the detour route and we have adjusted the signals at two of those locations to add between 60 to 90 seconds of extra green time to the through route," said Busch. "With people finding other ways to get through town, hopefully we will get through this."

Division St. bridge closure map
Division Street bridge closure map
Minnesota Dept. of Transportation

The Highway 23 bridge was closed during rush hour after a visual inspection found four bowed gusset plates -- the same kind of plates suspected as a major factor in last summer's 35W bridge failure that killed 13 people. The bridge is a steel truss bridge, similar to the 35W bridge.

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Since the disaster last August, MnDot has been inspecting the more than two dozen bridges around the state with similar designs. Officials say yesterday's inspection was part of an ongoing, systematic review of the Highway 23 bridge.

The span handles more than 30,000 vehicles a day. That traffic will now be dispersed among the area's half dozen other river crossings. Transportation officials say they are confident those bridges will be able to handle the extra load.

But some residents are skeptical.

DeSoto Bridge
The DeSoto Bridge in St. Cloud, Minn., stands empty after transportation officials closed the bridge on Thursday.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"You know, it's gonna be just crazy, I think, trying to get across the river," said Scott Johnson, who lives at the foot of the closed bridge.

Johnson said he found out about the closure when neighbors knocked on his door. Not long after that, they heard helicopters hovering overhead. He said he's stunned but figures it's for the best.

"I came across the bridge at 3:30, came in here, and all of a sudden I noticed the police were down here and all of a sudden there wasn't anybody going across it at 5:30 so what do you do?" said Johnson. "You hate to have it go down like the 35W bridge."

Johnson and his neighbor Ed Lahr were chatting near the closed bridge last night. Lahr said he's not sure people would feel safe if MnDot just repaired the existing bridge. At the same time, he remembers past bridge construction projects and worries about months or even years of traffic tie-ups that could result from any construction.

"It'll take you 20 minutes to get across the stupid bridge," said Lahr. "It's not so bad in the morning but when everybody gets off around 3:30, 4 o'clock it's nuts."

Lahr said he and his neighbors have been following the news on the bridge inspections. But he said he never worried about his safety in the past.

"I ain't no bridge engineer either, as long as it didn't fall down on me, I didn't care," he laughs.

Lahr and Johnson say they worry that if MnDot replaces the bridge, it might also jeopardize their homes. So far, there's not much more than speculation to base that on.

Acting transportation commissioner Bob McFarlin said the inspections of the bridge are complete. Starting today, the agency will work with consultants from the University of Minnesota to determine whether and how the existing bridge could be repaired. If not, the state will move to replace it.

McFarlin wants to reassure residents that if a bridge replacement is necessary, the state will fast track it.

"Under circumstances like this we would have found a way to accelerate the project and find the resources necessary to do that in order to reopen the bridge," said McFarlin.

It's unclear how long it will take to determine whether the bridge can be repaired. In the meantime, the Highway 23 Bridge remains closed.