Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse offers lessons for swift Baltimore rebuild

Motorists drive along Interstate 35W on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017.
Motorists drive along Interstate I-35W in Minneapolis.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News 2017

The shocking video of the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore brought back horrific memories for many people in Minnesota who experienced the I-35W bridge collapse in 2007.

But Minnesota’s experience recovering from that tragedy also provides important lessons that can guide officials in Maryland as they work to rebuild the bridge.

There are important distinctions between the two bridges, and the two disasters. The cause of Baltimore’s bridge collapse — a direct hit from a huge cargo ship that had lost power — was clear early on. In contrast, it would take months to decipher the cause of the catastrophic failure of the Minneapolis span.

The I-35W bridge, a federal interstate highway that’s a major artery through Minneapolis, is a much busier thoroughfare, carrying about 140,000 vehicles a day. That compares to only about 31,000 daily crossings for the Maryland bridge.

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But how Minnesota was able to rebuild the 35W bridge so quickly — in just over a year — offers hope to officials scrambling to reopen the Maryland bridge as quickly as possible.

“There have been experiences in the U.S. that we are drawing from, including the 2007 Minnesota bridge collapse, where the federal government, the whole country, stepped up to get that reconstructed. We’re learning from that as part of the playbook on what to do next,” transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN.

In an interview with MPR News, Tim Pawlenty, who was Minnesota governor at the time of the bridge collapse, recalled an “avalanche” of activity happening simultaneously in the days and weeks that followed.

The wreckage was removed. There was grieving for the victims. An investigation into the cause of the collapse was launched. And planning to rebuild the bridge began almost immediately.

“And the main reason for that, having to move quickly, is because in a place like the I-35W bridge, or in this case in Baltimore, you can’t have that bridge out very long without having dramatic economic impacts for the state, for the region and potentially for the nation,” Pawlenty said.

To accelerate construction, officials took several important steps. First, they used what’s called a “Design-Build” process, in which the bridge designer and contractor worked together, at the same time.

“And so rather than having the design happen in sequence, and then construction happening after that sequence, you have those happen both concurrently,” explained Ed Lutgen, the state bridge engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

So that the investigation into the cause of the bridge collapse didn’t delay construction, crews moved pieces of the bridge downstream on barges, where they partly reassembled them to help determine the cause of the failure.

“And so by removing those pieces earlier in the process and allowing access to the site sooner for the rebuild, you could accelerate that construction,” Lutgen said.

Eventually, the investigation revealed that an original design flaw dating back to when the bridge was built in the 1960s caused the collapse.

Incentives were also key to speeding up work.

“They simply said to the companies, every day you’re late, you owe us $200,000. And if you come in early, we’re gonna give you up to $27 million extra,” said University of Minnesota economics professor Christopher Phelan.

Every day the bridge was closed posed a significant economic cost to the entire region. Phelan said the incentive offered to the construction company was essentially “a cut of the societal savings” for getting the bridge finished early.

Multiple construction crews worked around the clock, on nights and weekends. That cost more money in overtime, but it sped up the process significantly.

A lot of red tape was also cut, Phelan said. Environmental reviews and other permitting —processes that typically take years — were streamlined.

“And it wasn’t that standards were compromised,” said Pawlenty. “It’s just the expectations on how long these reviews would take were all accelerated and prioritized. And it made a huge difference.”

In the end, the bridge was built, start to finish, in about 13 months. “Which is almost unheard of with large infrastructure projects these days,” said Pawlenty.

Typically, according to Lutgen, a bridge of the complexity of the I-35W bridge would take six to eight years to design, permit and construct. The Blatnik Bridge, which is being rebuilt between Duluth and Superior, Wis., is expected to take about 10 years from design to final construction.

Experts have given a wide range of timelines for how long it could take to rebuild the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore — anywhere from 18 months to five or more years.

A final critical ingredient, of course, is money. Just a few days after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Congress unanimously appropriated $250 million to rebuild the bridge.

“I hope, not withstanding the terrible polarized political environment nationally, that Americans rally towards each other in these moments of crisis,” Pawlenty said. “When something like this happens, the federal government must be an important partner.”

President Joe Biden has said he intends for the federal government to also fund the reconstruction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. It’s an open question whether Congress will go along this time, as it did 17 years ago.

Meanwhile, MnDOT’s Ed Lutgen said it’s important that officials in Maryland do everything they can to not only rebuild the bridge, but also rebuild public trust and confidence.

“So I think trying to be factual, trying to be transparent, trying to release information and provide guidance, and you don’t let rumors or conspiracy theories guide the discussion,” he said.