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MN2020 - 35W Bridge Survivor Works to Prevent Another Tragedy
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35W Bridge Survivor Works to Prevent Another Tragedy

September 14, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
 

Kimberly J. Brown of Minneapolis survived the deadly collapse of the Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge last year. Now she's working to keep that kind of tragedy from happening again in Minnesota.

But as state officials prepare to open the bridge's $400 million replacement this week, they haven't addressed Brown's concerns about hundreds of other spans in Minnesota whose structural deterioration has gone unchecked. Brown drives over one of them daily, even though she's documented the broken and cracked concrete and exposed rebar of some of its support piers.

That's under I-394 near downtown Minneapolis, part of Brown's regular commute to her job as a technical writer at the Carlson Companies in Plymouth.

In August, Brown sent the Minnesota Department of Transportation her pictures and descriptions of cracked, crumbling and hole-filled bridge infrastructure (PDF) - along with a plea to make fixes before another disaster occurs. Nearly a month later, the department's only response has been, in effect, We'll get back to you later.

That's a disappointment to the 37-year-old woman who still suffers chronic back and neck pain and post-traumatic stress from her plunge in a friend's car into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007.

"We've got a lot of problems," Brown said. "I know we can't deal with every single one tomorrow. But are we even planning to do it? If things keep happening the way they are, it's going to happen again, guaranteed."

The I-394 bridge at Dunwoody Avenue doesn't appear on MnDOT's 10-year program for structural replacement or repairs. Despite its damaged piers, it's considered structurally sound.

CLICK HERE FOR A PHOTO GALLERY OF THE 394 BRIDGE

A structurally deficient Minnesota River bridge at New Ulm where Brown found a badly rotting concrete guardrail is slated for work in 2013.

CLICK HERE FOR A PHOTO GALLERY OF THE NEW ULM BRIDGE

The I-35E Cayuga Bridge in St. Paul, where light shines through holes in the deck in Brown's photographs, is also structurally deficient. But 148,000 cars a day will have to continue traversing
 
it until reconstruction starts in 2014.

CLICK HERE FOR A PHOTO GALLERY OF THE CAYUGA BRIDGE

"I want to see a plan for repairs," Brown said. "It's not like cancer, where we don't have a cure. We can fix these things."

That's true in one sense, but not in another, at least under the current administration's policies. The state has the technical expertise to make all bridges safe. It doesn't have the money to pay for it.

Even after the Legislature's bipartisan enactment of a $6.6 billion 10-year transportation funding package over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto, his own MnDOT says it's still $2 billion a year short of meeting its goals for the state trunk highway system.

That comprises 12,000 miles of major roads and bridges - only about one-tenth of all Minnesota motorways, but accounting for half of vehicle miles traveled. MnDOT has a $2.5 billion plan, largely funded by the override bill, to replace or rehabilitate 120 trunk highway bridges over the next decade. That's a significant initiative, but it addresses only one out of three spans in the trunk system that are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

Another 1,433 county, city and township bridges in Minnesota were rated as deficient or obsolete in 2006. Although many of these are not eligible for funding through user fees such as fuel and vehicle taxes, a new federal study shows that in the past decade they have been fixed at a faster pace than the more heavily-traveled state, U.S. and interstate highway spans.

For that we can thank property taxes, which in Minnesota support local roads and bridges to the tune of $1.6 billion a year - equal to all the road user fees collected in the state.   

For the most part, however, "the largest and most critical bridges ... are too expensive to be funded," the author of a critical recent Government Accountability Office study of federal bridge funding programs told a congressional committee last week.

In Minnesota, we've learned that when a major bridge fails and people are killed and injured, no expense is spared to replace the span. That's the kind of commitment we need to bridges that haven't fallen down - yet - but we know could someday.

Meanwhile, Kimberly Brown has an idea that could spur the public awareness and official initiative it will take to make all our bridges safe. "I had no idea the 35W bridge was deficient," she said. "I wish they would put the ratings on the bridges."



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