You’ve Heard of ’Trainspotting?’ How About ’Constructionspotting?’

Twice a day, in every kind of weather, a retired banker drives to a bridge construction site south to check on its progress.

📅   Mon November 23, 2015 - National Edition
MARY DIVINE - St. Paul Pioneer Press


In the world of regular folks devoted to following construction of the mammoth bridge south of Stillwater, Friedrich might be fan No. 1.
In the world of regular folks devoted to following construction of the mammoth bridge south of Stillwater, Friedrich might be fan No. 1.

STILLWATER, Minn. (AP) - ”They call me the `Bayport foreman.’’

So says Marvin Friedrich when asked how carefully he tracks construction of the St. Croix River bridge.

Twice a day, in every kind of weather, the retired banker drives to the bridge site south of Stillwater to check on its progress.

”Yesterday, they put the last segment in the eastbound main highway,’ the Bayport 77-year-old said during a recent tour of his favorite bridge-watching spots. ”Isn’t it something? You had no idea of the magnitude, did you?

”See where the blue starts? That’s the lifter for the segments going over the river. As I understand it, that hoist that they use was made in China. There are five of them. There’s a segment right there. ... Look at the size of this thing.’

In the world of regular folks devoted to following construction of the mammoth bridge south of Stillwater, Friedrich might be fan No. 1.

Friedrich, who has been tracking its progress since the very beginning in 2013, starts his tours in Bayport.

First, he drives north to Oak Park Heights. There, Friedrich pulls off Minnesota 95 to ”see if they’ve made any headway on the stay cables or see if I can tell how many segments they’ve brought up by barge.’

He continues north to downtown Stillwater and crosses the Lift Bridge. He then heads south to the construction site on the Wisconsin side of the river.

”I check and see how they are doing over there, and then I’ll come back and go on the south (Minnesota 36) frontage road,’ he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/1HYvvDN ).

”I kind of pull over there, take my field glasses and peer down into the casting yard _ where they make the segments _ and see if can guess what they’re doing.

”Then I check the next day to see if my guess was right.’

Another regular stop is the St. Croix River bridge office in Stillwater. There, he picks up maps and materials, and peppers bridge project construction manager Terry Zoller with questions.

”Marv knows as much about the bridge as anyone out there,’ Zoller said. ”He watches it all the time. He keeps everyone up to date.’

Friedrich said he’s just curious.

”I’m curious to see why they’re doing what they’re doing and how it came about and what’s the size and what’s the next project or what’s the next thing I can watch for,’ he said.

Friedrich stores his binoculars in the console of his 2012 Chrysler Town & Country and regularly pulls them out for a closer look at the piers stretching across the river. He carefully studies the ”St. Croix Crossing Update’ emails sent out by Minnesota Department of Transportation staff each Thursday and reads every newspaper story published about the project.

At 7:15 each morning, Friedrich meets with his coffee pals at the Not Justa Cafe in Bayport to give them updates on the bridge progress. On Mondays, he gives weekly reports at 9:15 a.m. over coffee at the Main Cafe in Stillwater.

”They kind of make fun of me,’ he said. ”`If you have anything you want to know about the bridge, just ask Marv. He’s the expert. Blah, blah, blah.’ You know, I’m no expert: `Ex’ is a has-been; `spurt’ is a drip under pressure.’

But Dan Larson, a Hudson, Wisconsin, carpenter who joins Friedrich at the Not Justa Cafe counter, said Friedrich has an encyclopedic knowledge of the bridge-building process.

”Ask him a question, and he’ll know exactly what’s happening, when it’s going to happen or why it didn’t happen,’ Larson said. ”If somebody asks me something, I’ll say `I’ll find out for you tomorrow.’ I’ll talk to Marv, and I’ll find out what’s happening. ... He knows the whole process.’

”He gives us all the inside dope,’ added Bill Conley of Bayport.

”He goes up to Terry’s office at least once a week, and he comes back with some report about what he’s learned. Did you see his bridge pin?’

The lapel pin, which features a picture of the new bridge and the words ”St. Croix Crossing,’ was a gift from Zoller. Friedrich is one of just a few private individuals who have one; the rest have been handed out to public officials and employees of the Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments and Ames/Lunda Joint Venture, the contractors building the bridge.

”The thing that I marvel about more than anything else is the tremendous amount of engineering that goes into this thing _ every little part that fits _ and the timing,’ Friedrich said. ”It fascinates me. This is one helluva project.’

Friedrich, who retired in 1997 as executive vice president of First State Bank in Bayport, said he often thinks he would have enjoyed a career in construction or farming.

”My wife (Mary Lou) says I would be a great farmer because I walk like one, I talk like one, and I look like one,’ he said. ”But I happened to be a banker, which I enjoyed very much.’

Friedrich, who grew up in Lake Elmo and graduated from Stillwater High School in 1956, said a new St. Croix River bridge is long overdue.

”They should have done it 30 years ago,’ he said. ”Just think _ all that traffic going over the (Stillwater Lift Bridge) won’t be here anymore.’

But is the new four-lane bridge, estimated to cost between $580 million and $646 million, too much?

”People say that this might be overbuilt, and maybe it is for now, but you know the bridge is a 100-year bridge,’ Friedrich said. ”It’s being built for what traffic is going to be like in 100 years. They’re doing it right. Because 100 years from now, we’ll all be in the metropolitan area, you know.’

Friedrich, who spends part of the winter in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, said he’s not sure what he’ll do once construction ends in 2017.

”It’s not that I don’t have anything else to do; I do,’ he said. ”Maybe I’ll get some things done that I should be doing now. My wife says I’m crazy _ to spend a half hour, 45 minutes a day watching something and not having any control over what’s happening.’

Zoller, who lives in Stillwater, said he can understand the allure of bridge-watching.

”For this area, it’s something big and humongous, and it’s something to watch,’ Zoller said. ”It’s not like downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis where people see construction going on all the time. And it’s moving so quick.’

The bridge is about 60 percent complete. When construction resumes in the spring, progress will be rapid, said Zoller, who regularly leads paddleboat cruises of the construction site for MnDOT.

”From the first boat cruise in May to the third boat cruise in July,’ he said, ”there’s going to be quite a difference.’