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Lawmakers want tougher bridge regulations

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State Sen. Jim Carlson with a chunk of a bridge
Sen. Jim Carlson, DFL-Eagan, held a chunk of concrete he picked up from beside Warner Road, under the Lafayette Bridge, last fall. He said lawmakers are getting more calls about damage caused by deteriorating infrastructure.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Minnesota Department of Transportation inspectors will be taking a closer look at the Maryland Avenue bridge in the next week or so. The bridge is about 50 years old and was inspected last August. That inspection did not find anything that would suggest the concrete pieces would fall off within a year.

The chunk of concrete hit two cars. No one was injured, but traffic was re-routed off of that section of 35E for more than eight hours this weekend as crews inspected the overpass.

MNDOT spokesman Kent Barnard is downplaying the potential danger from similar problems.   

"It's just like asking how dangerous is your house," Barnard said. "Your floors in your house.  I just replaced part of the flooring in my house because it was damaged.  It's not anything that people should be really alarmed about.  It is absolutely nothing structural as far as the bridge.  It was more of a coating over the re-barb underneath. It had nothing to do with the load-bearing capacity of the bridge."  

Chunks of concrete have fallen off of other Minnesota bridges in recent years. Barnard says last year a piece of concrete fell off of the Highway 7 bridge onto Highway 100 in St. Louis Park. He says this weekend's incident was different because the concrete chunk was so large. 

Maryland Avenue bridge over Interstate 35E
The Maryland Avenue bridge over Interstate 35E was closed for hours this weekend after nearly a half ton of concrete veneer fell from the span onto traffic below. Inspectors say it is structurally sound.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Sarah Fahey of Fridley knows what it's like to have a large piece of concrete hit your windshield.  Fahey was in her Toyota Yaris driving to work last July on the Crosstown Highway 62.  When she got to the France Avenue overpass in Edina around 7:45 in the morning she saw something she'll never forget. 

"A chunk of concrete about the size of my head hit above the windshield wipers and it broke into a bunch of pieces," Fahey said. "It split up over my car. It hit the windshield, damaged the roof and the trunk."  

Fahey says she reported the problem to MnDOT officials, who sent an inspector to look at the bridge. But the agency called her back that afternoon and said they did not see any damage to the bridge.  Fahey remains skeptical and says she's speaking out because she wants MN-DOT to get more money to keep the bridges safe.  

At a state Capitol press conference, State Senator Jim Carlson said bridge inspections need more follow-up so problems are fixed and not just documented. 

"These pieces of concrete that fall off the bottom of bridges are dangerous," Carlson said.  "When they fall on busy roads--the one of 35E was thankfully there were no cars that were in the danger zone of it. It evidentially hit the hood of one car and the front end of another.  There were no injuries thankfully. But that was only just a matter of chance."

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said the state could actually save money by paying them more to keep them on the department roster, rather than having to contract out to private engineering firms for similar services.

Dibble was also asked if he thinks Minnesota's bridges are safe.  He answered:  "I think they are, but stuff keeps happening.  We see bridges closed; we see stuff falling off bridges.

"Our attempt [with the legislation] is to make sure we're not thinking so, that we're knowing so."

The proposal would also:

- Require the state's Transportation Commissioner to be a professional engineer (current Commissioner Tom Sorel is).

- Require cities and counties to better document their safety needs when requesting state aid for bridges.

- Encourage MnDOT to steer its research money into innovations in bridge inspection and bridge monitoring technology.

- Require the Transportation Commissioner to submit an annual report on bridge inspections to the Legislature; as well as develop a policy by 2010 for managing the agency's debt financing.

- Add the following line to MnDOT's mission statement:  "to ensure that the safety of Minnesota's transportation infrastructure is a primary priority."

The lawmakers handed out an initial version of their legislation.  They said they'd had preliminary discussions with MnDOT, but that they hadn't formally entered talks with the department about shaping a final bill.

MnDOT's Kent Barnard says Minnesota bridges and the state's inspection program are highly ranked nationally. He's not sure how many bridges along 35E in St. Paul were built in the 1950s, like the Maryland Avenue Bridge. 

"I would have to go down and pull bridge files," Barnard said. "I do know that the Arlington Bridge is around the same vintage.  That's not used for traffic anymore that's a bicycle bridge and a pedestrian bridge.  I would guess that Larpenteur, probably Wheelock, probably all around the same vintage." 

At this point there are no plans to re-inspect the other bridges along 35E in St. Paul. As the one year anniversary of the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis approaches on August 1, MnDOT is aware that Minnesota drivers have a heightened concern for bridge safety.  Barnard says e-mails and phone calls about the condition of bridges have spiked in the past year. 

"I hate to see people living in fear about this and being afraid to go over bridges," Barnard said. "As we know, some people have that phobia to begin with. I've read some interesting stories. There was a guy that would have to get out of his car and his wife would have to lock him in the trunk of the car before he could go over bridges."  

St. Paul's Maryland Avenue bridge was built in 1958, remodeled in 1973 and received minor repairs in 1992. MnDOT says it has a sufficiency rating of 77 out of a 100 and is considered "structurally deficient." The bridge is scheduled to be replaced in 2014.