A 1,200-pound slab of concrete veneer falling on cars from a freeway overpass might have gotten less attention in Minnesota but for its timing six days from today’s anniversary of the I-35W bridge disaster. This time, thank God, no one was hurt, although a couple of cars were damaged and traffic was backed up for hours.
But the partial failure of the Interstate Hwy. 35E Maryland Avenue overpass in St. Paul on Saturday can only reinforce Minnesotans’ fears over the state’s crumbling public infrastructure. And it should raise new questions about the adequacy of road and bridge funding as well as the state’s system of triage for prioritizing new and replacement highway projects.
Replacement of the 50-year-old Maryland overpass has been on Minnesota Department of Transportation drawing boards for years, now scheduled for 2014 as part of a $200 million reconstruction of 35E that will include a new Cayuga Bridge nearby.
Both the Maryland and Cayuga spans, traversed by 140,000 vehicles on an average weekday, are rated as structurally deficient. Federal matching funds to replace them have long been available, but MnDOT chose other projects for first dibs on its scarce resources. Even in hindsight, it’s hard to fault the agency for that. As state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan told the Star Tribune, the steel beam structure of the overpass is intact and safe, and only some concrete coating worked loose due to age, weather and road salt. “For 50-year-old concrete, that’s the type of deterioration you often see,” Dorgan said.
How often? Probably more so than most Minnesota drivers would care to dwell on. Our state has 1,134 bridges listed as structurally deficient, or 9 percent of the total.
A question of money
There’s one way to rectify this: more money. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reported Monday that the nation needs to devote at least $140 billion in new funding to the repair, maintenance and replacement of aging bridges. It called for increased tax and toll revenues to meet that challenge. But years of starving government in the service of the no new taxes ideology have left us all driving on or under 50-year-old concrete.
Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning. Last week the U.S. House overwhelmingly added $1 billion to President Bush’s request for $39.4 billion in federal aid to states for roads and bridges. The bill also would keep states from diverting federal bridge funds to other priorities, as Minnesota has done in recent years, until every federal highway span in the state is up to snuff.
Minnesota’s share of the extra $1 billion would come to just $7.3 million, or about 3 percent of the cost of the new 35W bridge. So the task remains daunting, even with the early steps by Congress and the Minnesota Legislature.
MnDOT, for example, got $2.3 billion in new trunk highway funding over 10 years with the override of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s transportation bill veto in February. Here’s MnDOT’s estimate of the trunk system’s needs through 2014, when the 35E project is set: $2.4 billion every year.
Minnesota U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, toured the 35W bridge construction site last week and praised its speedy progress toward a possible September opening to traffic.
“But we owe the victims and the survivors of the tragedy much more than a new bridge,” he said. “We owe them a new bridge policy that ensures that the traveling public is safe.”
Conrad deFiebre is a transportation fellow at Minnesota 2020, a think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.
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