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Associated Press, Published June 20 2013

Minn. still struggles with deteriorating bridges

MINNEAPOLIS — Nearly six years after the deadly Interstate 35W bridge collapse, more than half a billion dollars in new spending isn't enough for Minnesota's need to repair and replace its deteriorating bridges.

The state has seen a bigger jump in the number of structurally deficient bridges than all but a few other states, raising concerns about how to fix them, the Star Tribune reported Thursday.

A new analysis of federal highway data shows that Minnesota has 1,191 troubled bridges, up 3.5 percent from 2011. Most are under county or local control but rely on state and federal funding for much of their maintenance and repairs.

The number rose despite a 2008 gas tax increase that that provides $866 million for bridge repair and replacement. Of that, $532 million already has been spent. Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said the state will need to find new funding when that tax increase expires in 2018.

"There's more challenges ahead," he said.

The condition of the nation's bridges came under intense scrutiny after the 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, which killed 13 people. Last month, a bridge on Interstate 5 north of Seattle in Washington state sent several vehicles tumbling into a river.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said cash-strapped states and local governments will be forced to consider drastic alternatives without more money to fix their bridges.

"I think we'll cut off the collapse, we won't cut off the closings, and those are going to start coming at an increased rate," Walz said Wednesday.

The 66,405 bridges considered structurally deficient nationwide by the federal government have a major defect in their support structures or decks requiring exceptional maintenance, repair or weight limits to remain in service.

Around 9 percent of Minnesota's bridges are considered structurally deficient, according to a report released Wednesday by Transportation for America, a coalition of government, business and union officials that analyzes Federal Highway Administration data. Most of them are under local control, and Zelle said their problems may have worsened slightly.

Minnesota's 3.5 percent increase was exceeded by only five other states: Arizona, Delaware, Wyoming, Hawaii and Connecticut.

Zelle said he's "not seriously concerned" by the state's percentage increase, noting that some bridges are taken off the deficiency list and replaced by others.

But Walz said the uptick underscores a larger problem.

"This is what happens when we don't have a long-term policy on transportation," he said.

The transportation bill Congress passed last year lacked long-standing dedicated federal funding for bridges, which now compete with other transportation priorities.

Minnesota's structurally deficient bridges have an average age of 67 years. The biggest share of bridges deemed deficient, at nearly 28 percent, is in Pipestone County in far southwestern Minnesota. More than 20 percent of the bridges in Sibley, Renville and Mower counties were structurally deficient.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.