Minnesota Officials to Replace 11 Major Bridges, Highways

Sun July 13, 2008 - Midwest Edition
Martiga Lohn - ASSOCIATED PRESS

ST. PAUL (AP) Minnesota transportation officials outlined a $2.5 billion draft bridge improvement plan that would replace 11 major highway and freeway spans over the next decade — a top priority set by lawmakers after last year’s Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

The bridges include Mississippi River crossings in St. Cloud, Winona, Hastings and St. Paul, and two bridges across the Red River on the North Dakota border.

Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel appeared before a House-Senate panel on June 16 to share the proposed bridge improvements and other plans for a $6.6 billion transportation package the Legislature put into law over Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto earlier this year.

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. 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.

“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.

Replacing the 11 major bridges would consume about three-quarters of money. 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 choke points, such as shoulder lanes and better-timed stoplights. 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 said his agency will reimburse Winona officials for the cost of ferry service during the bridge’s closure from June 3 to 14. He said MnDOT is still studying whether it has authority to borrow enough money to put the entire bridge plan into effect.