Martiga Lohn, Associated Press Writer, Published July 31 2009
Few of Minnesota’s worst bridges get stimulus money
The deadly collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis two years ago Saturday illuminated the nation’s problem of deficient bridges, yet most of the state’s
$502 million in stimulus money for roads and bridges is going into new pavement. The biggest chunk, more than $56 million, will build a three-mile stretch of new road in the northwestern Twin Cities suburbs, including five new bridges.
Minnesota will spend about $50 million in stimulus cash to replace, repair or build 80 bridges. Only a third are deemed “structurally deficient” – a technical engineering term that means significant parts are deteriorated or damaged, requiring repairs or eventual replacement. The designation doesn’t necessarily mean a bridge is unsafe.
“I would do the bridges that are in bad shape first,” said state Sen. Michael Jungbauer, the lead Senate Republican on transportation and a 2010 gubernatorial candidate.
The rush-hour disaster on Aug. 1, 2007, killed 13 people and injured 145. Federal investigators pinpointed undersized steel reinforcing plates as the chief cause, and said construction material piled on the bridge overstressed the plates. A new bridge went up in record time, paid for with emergency federal aid and open to traffic less than 14 months after the disaster.
President Barack Obama used the nation’s deteriorating bridges as a selling point to pass the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But bridges haven’t turned out to be a big focus of its implementation. The stimulus was designed to boost the economy by employing workers on “shovel ready” infrastructure projects, including roads and bridges. In Minnesota, most of the stimulus money is going toward projects like pavement overlays, new guardrails and median cables.
“One of the goals behind this is to put people to work, and so focusing on just bridges really wouldn’t serve one of the purposes of this stimulus money,” said Jon Chiglo, stimulus project manager for the state transportation department.
The AP analyzed the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s data on stimulus spending and National Bridge Inspection Standards sufficiency ratings for the state and local bridges getting money.
The analysis found 27 were rated structurally deficient, ranging from the recently demolished Lowry Avenue bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to a much smaller crossing over Mud Creek near Murdock, in western Minnesota.
Minnesota has more than 1,160 such bridges.
Chiglo said the state’s stimulus spending on bridges roughly matches the proportion of spending they would get in Minnesota in a normal year. Those that qualified for stimulus money were mostly smaller bridges that already had completed environmental reviews.
Big bridges take much longer to get off the ground – sometimes years.
State Rep. Bernie Lieder, a retired county bridge engineer, said he considered four years for a bridge project “a real rush.” Minnesotans watched crews replace the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge in less than a year of construction, but Lieder said that project was “superaccelerated” with round-the-clock work and a $25 million bonus spurring contractors to finish faster.
“The stimulus money doesn’t fit in too well on bridges,” said Lieder, the Crookston Democrat who heads the House transportation spending committee.
Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, a Republican from Lakeville, said the “shovel-ready” requirement trumped other considerations for transportation stimulus projects, even if that didn’t line up with the state’s priorities. She said the criteria were “frustrating” for those pushing to replace needy bridges that weren’t ready to go.
Minnesota is also spending $80 million of its own money on bridges this year.
About half a year after the bridge collapse, the Democrat-led Legislature and a few renegade Republicans overrode Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a major transportation spending package to raised Minnesota’s gas tax and other money for roads and bridges.
The state now is in the second year of a decade-long, $2.5 billion plan to fix deteriorating bridges, including 11 major spans carrying significant traffic.
State Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Steve Murphy said he wished more of the stimulus package would have been devoted to bridges and other infrastructure. But he said the new state transportation money is addressing Minnesota’s problem bridges – and he’s glad stimulus dollars will go to maintain some less needy bridges.
“That money is being spent so they don’t get into that category,” said Murphy, a Democrat from Red Wing.
Inspectors examined all Minnesota’s state bridges and many local spans in the months after the Aug. 1, 2007, bridge collapse, closing or restricting traffic on major structures in St. Cloud, Duluth and Winona. Duane Hill, the department of transportation engineer who led the statewide bridge review, said officials now are paying closer attention to the results of bridge inspections and follow-up maintenance and repairs.
Hill said the influx of stimulus dollars helps by freeing up state funds for bridges, even if much of the federal cash doesn’t go directly to bridges.
Breakdown of Minnesota stimulus spending on bridges
The AP analyzed the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s data on stimulus spending and National Bridge Inspection Standards sufficiency ratings for 80 state and local bridges:
Needy Minnesota bridges getting federal stimulus money
The following Minnesota bridges are getting federal stimulus money and are rated “structurally deficient” on National Bridge Inspection Standards. The rating means key parts are in poor condition or the bridge is exposed to regular flooding. The classification doesn’t mean the bridges are unsafe.
The stimulus dollar figures from the Minnesota Department of Transportation in some cases include costs that go beyond bridges, such as approaches and other project expenses.
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