With memories of I-35W collapse still fresh, officials diligently fixing bridge problems

Highway 61 bridge
Construction on the new Hwy. 61 bridge over the Mississippi River continues next to the existing two-lane bridge in Hastings, Minn. Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

It's been five years since the Interstate 35W bridge fell in Minneapolis. The collapse killed 13 people and injured scores more, but also highlighted the deteriorating condition of the state's infrastructure.

Now, the state is halfway through a 10-year upgrade that is finally replacing some of Minnesota's most worrisome bridges. Officials at the Minnesota Department of Transportation say it is more vigilant than ever.

It was a cold day a couple of years ago when retired nurse Ginger Knaff got in her car in West St. Paul to visit her mom in a nursing home in St. Paul's Mounds Park neighborhood. She headed north on Highway 52.

"And I ended up right over the river. And everything was jammed up. And there was a semi next to me. A big semi. And we were just sitting there," Knaff said. "And I looked at my coffee cup, and it was actually sloshing back and forth. And I was sitting still. My motor was running, but that was all."

The earlier collapse of the I-35W bridge was fresh in Knaff's mind as she drove over the Lafayette bridge. For the last time.

"I don't use it any more. I just don't," she said.

Knaff isn't alone. Other drivers say they are nervous about the river crossing, and even transportation officials acknowledge the Lafayette bridge's deficiencies. Its concrete deck has deteriorated. It's held up by rusting steel. It's an outmoded design. And it had a lower safety rating than the old 35W bridge before that fell.

Highway 61 bridge
Construction workers continue to build the new Hwy. 61 bridge over the Mississippi River in Hastings, Minn. Tuesday, July 31, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Lafayette is scheduled to be torn down, but it will have to carry traffic for another year.

"In the past, actually not too long after the bridge was opened, some cracks initiated within the plate girders and had to be fixed. And they've been monitored over time. We feel the bridge is safe," said Nancy Daubenberger, bridge engineer for MnDOT, oversees the Lafayette Bridge as well as hundreds of other spans across the state.

Officials acknowledge the state's bridge problems. They're on the way to getting the worst of them fixed, and they're keeping a closer eye than ever on the rest. But the landmark bridge collapse has left a lingering fear.

The heart of the state's response to the disaster is a $2.5 billion, decade-long campaign targeted at 172 of the state's most-deficient bridges. It started in 2008. It's a one-time fix, with $1.2 billion in long-term state borrowing. But by the end of this year, almost half of the bridges on the list will have been replaced or substantially rehabilitated.

Some of the bridges in the worst condition are also the toughest to fix. Daubenberger said.

"These are our major structures and so they are river crossings of high importance, you know, higher average daily traffic. And also, they are longer-span bridges, so typically higher-cost bridges," Daubenberger said. "And so in order for the department to be able to program bridges like this, typically it needs to be spaced out over time, in order to be able to finance this."

The Lafayette and Hastings' Highway 61 bridges alone account for nearly a quarter-billion dollars, not to mention years of planning to avoid mistakes, such as a design firm's error that delayed the Interstate 494 Wakota bridge for three years.

Major Freeway Bridge Collapses In Minneapolis
Vehicles rest on a collapsed section of the I35W bridge August 2, 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The eight lane steel and concrete bridge, which was undergoing repair work, broke apart yesterday sending at least 50 vehicles into the Mississippi River.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Daubenberger also said they are working harder than ever to keep existing bridges in good shape.

"We've increased staffing for our maintenance and inspection staff to allow more work to be done in the way of bridge maintenance," Daubenberger said. "And also we've instituted performance measures that track bridge inspection timeliness and bridge maintenance accomplishments."

The people that ultimately oversee that effort — the Dayton administration and the Legislature — say the effort is going as well as it can.

"You got to remember that there's only so many companies that build bridges and repair bridges," said Republican Mike Beard, who chairs the House transportation committee. "And we're running those guys ragged. They're keeping up to the schedule just as fast as they can."

And that means the Lafayette Bridge that Ginger Knaff can't bear to cross will likely be gone by 2015. The Hastings bridge is scheduled for completion in 2014, and one of the state's worst bridges, the Cayuga freeway bridge in St. Paul, should be done by late 2015.

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