Minn. officials to replace 11 major bridges by 2018

Bridge inspections
MnDOT workers inspect the gusset plates on the Highway 43 bridge over the Mississippi River in Winona. MnDOT officials closed the bridge for about a week and half after an inspection found potential problems with the plates.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

MnDOT officials say they'll replace 11 Minnesota highway and freeway bridges in the next decade.

Officials today outlined to lawmakers how they'll spend about $2.5 billion in new money. It comes from a gas tax increase and other fee hikes that the Legislature put into law over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto earlier this year.

DeSoto Bridge
Road closed signs block the entrance to the DeSoto Bridge in St. Cloud.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

About three-fourths of the money will be spent on the 11 new bridges, including the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul, the DeSoto Bridge in St. Cloud, and the Highway 43 bridge at Winona.

The bridge plan banks on more than $500 million a year continuing to arrive from the federal government, no sharp downturn in gas tax revenues and no more surprise problems cropping up during bridge inspections.

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Concerns over gusset plate connectors have prompted officials to close three bridges since March, and Sorel wouldn't rule out more closures if new risks are found.

Federal investigators have said gusset plates that were too thin were "the critical factor" in the Minneapolis bridge collapse, even as their investigation into the actual cause continues.

Most-traveled bridge
The Lafayette bridge in downtown St. Paul carries 81,000 vehicles a day, making it the state's most-traveled bridge with troubles similar to the I-35W bridge.
MPR file photo/Bob Collins

"Safety trumps everything that we're all about," said Sorel, who took over at the Minnesota Department of Transportation less than two months ago. "Safety is our No. 1 priority. Safety trumps everything. I can't emphasize that enough."

By 2018, 120 bridges that lack structural redundancies or rank poorly on a federal bridge rating system would be repaired, replaced or under construction.

Work has already started on a replacement for St. Cloud's Highway 23 bridge, which officials closed in March. But another bridge closed recently -- the Highway 43 bridge in Winona -- would have to wait until 2014. Crews are set to repair the bridge's gusset plates this year.

Not everyone was satisfied -- particularly when Sorel said MnDOT will look for inexpensive fixes for traffic chokepoints, such as shoulder lanes and better-timed stoplights.

"Safety is our No. 1 priority. Safety trumps everything. I can't emphasize that enough."

Republican lawmakers objected when they found out the agency's plans for Highway 60 include adding lanes near the Iowa border, but not to other two-lane stretches of the road. A description fitting that project was included in the transportation bill to attract GOP override votes.

"A deal is a deal," said Rep. Doug Magnus, R-Slayton, who voted against the override. "A deal was done to get all of Highway 60 finished, and that's our understanding of the deal."

Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, said she is waiting to see how MnDOT handles the Winona bridge after getting results from an in-depth inspection, and may push to replace that span sooner.

"What I heard today is they're going to be trying to take as many low-cost fix approaches as possible, so I would imagine they're going to try to repair whatever needs to be repaired and hold off," she said.

Sorel also announced the state will reimburse the city of Winona for the money it's spending on ferry service across the Mississippi River.

Sorel said MnDOT is still studying whether it has authority to borrow enough money to put the entire bridge plan into effect.

MnDOT will hold public hearings this summer to get input on the bridge plan.