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Minnesota’s rough road to sound bridges

Thanks to federal largesse and the Legislature’s only override of a Tim Pawlenty veto, Minnesota now boasts the most aggressive highway bridge repair and replacement program in the nation.

Thanks to federal largesse and the Legislature’s only override of a Tim Pawlenty veto, Minnesota now boasts the most aggressive highway bridge repair and replacement program in the nation.

It’s also pioneering smart bridge technology with the new I-35W Mississippi River span’s electronic sensors that continuously monitor its structural soundness — an excellent safeguard in the wake of the old bridge’s deadly collapse.

All this is a sharp turnaround from Minnesota’s shameful neglect of bridges during Pawlenty’s first term as governor. Even a study by the conservative Heritage Foundation found that Minnesota far outstripped the rest of the states in federal highway bridge funds diverted to other projects from 2003 to 2007 — 57 percent, compared with a national average of 12 percent.

A distant second was Arizona, with 47 percent of bridge funds diverted over the four years. Arid Arizona, by the way, listed only 4 percent of its major highway spans as structurally or functionally deficient in the most recent national bridge inventory, compared with 9 percent in Minnesota.

The big question, two different answers
Could our governor’s parsimony toward bridges have contributed to the 13 deaths on the old I-35W span on Aug. 1, 2007? The Bush administration’s National Transportation Safety Board said no, but an engineering firm hired by bridge collapse victims contends that poor state maintenance was really to blame for the disaster. Thornton Tomasetti Inc. said corroded and immobilized bridge bearings, not the undersized gusset plates fingered by the NTSB, caused the collapse by not allowing for expansion of steel beams under heavy construction loads in summer heat. That was “a maintenance issue,” not an original design error, said Chris Messerly, an attorney representing 117 bridge survivors and victim relatives.

Whatever the reason for the tragedy, it sparked a vigorous response from practically everyone but Gov. Pawlenty.

Congress and former President George W. Bush quickly provided $234 million, with no state matching strings attached, to design and erect the high-tech new 35W span in record time of less than 12 months. And the Minnesota Legislature overrode a Pawlenty veto to raise the state gasoline tax for the first time in 20 years, largely to finance a nation-leading $2.5 billion program to replace or rehab 172 more deficient state highway bridges over the next decade. That’s a welcome and unprecedented commitment to Minnesotans’ safety.

So what bridges were Pawlenty and former Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau focusing on before 8-1-07? According to Minnesota Department of Transportation finance officer Brad Larsen, mostly just two projects: the new Wakota Bridge carrying I-494 over the Mississippi River — a $300 million case study in bungling now in its eighth year of construction — and new freeway bridges over Hwy. 52 in Rochester. Meanwhile, all but 43 percent of the state’s federal bridge money was diverted to more “flexible” programs that required less paperwork or smaller state matches and supported the administration’s priority for expanding urban freeway capacity, Larson said.

‘A perception issue’ and a start
He said the state actually spent double its federal bridge allotment over the four years, counting its use of other funding sources. But it’s hard to show that that did much to reduce Minnesota’s backlog of deficient older spans, something the current program emphasizes. Larsen said the Heritage Foundation findings created a “perception issue” that the state was ignoring its bridge needs. MnDOT will do better from now on, he added.

“In the future, we will use at least 85 percent of our federal highway bridge program funds,” Larsen said. “We’ll do the extra paperwork. We’ve got the projects to spend the money on.”

That’s a start, anyway. Minnesota’s obligation of those funds dipped as low as 27 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, a dozen states, led by Mississippi, Georgia and Tennessee, obligated more than 100 percent of their federal bridge apportionments over a five-year period, according to the Heritage study.

Bridges in the Sun Belt don’t have to endure the repeated stresses of Minnesota’s climate extremes. Maybe it’s time for MnDOT to set its sights at least as high as Mississippi’s when it comes to assuring Minnesotans’ safe passage over major highway bridges.

Conrad deFiebre is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the 2020 website.