Collapse a decade ago led to improved bridge safety
ST. PAUL—"A bridge in America just shouldn't fall down."
The often-quoted comment by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was what Minnesotans thought 10 years ago when the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis did just that. But state leaders did not stop with talk, they began taking action to prevent more bridge disasters the day after the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse. They started inspecting every bridge in the state, then fixing and replacing those most in need.
"We will do anything and everything to get these issues addressed," then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty promised after the collapse.
Now, a decade later, work is nearing completion on the program launched in reaction to the disaster that killed 13 people and injured 145.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation reports that funds provided in the wake of the collapse in the past decade mean 100 new state bridges have replaced old ones and 19 have undergone extensive rehabilitation. Work on another 18 is to begin by next year. Those figures reflect bridges that came under the post-collapse program; other pots of money were used for other bridge repairs.
There are nearly 13,400 state and local bridges, from culverts to massive spans over major rivers and lakes.
MnDOT has 71 team leader bridge inspectors (who get help from other MnDOT workers as needed). About 240 team leader bridge inspectors serve local agencies, consultants and the state Department of Natural Resources.
The collapse drew public attention to bridge safety and helped transportation officials and politicians focus on the issue.
Jackson County Engineer Tim Stahl compared it to after a driver hits a deer.
"When you drive down the road and see a deer, you are a little more aware," Stahl said of crashes into deers. "I think the 35W bridge (collapse) ... made us more aware of inspections."
Stahl and state officials said they already were working on bridges when the state's busiest one collapsed.
State-owned bridges needing repair would have been fixed or replaced even without the collapse, but it speeded things up, said State Bridge Engineer Kevin Western of the state Department of Transportation.
Inspections have changed because of the collapse and because of new procedures and technology.
"I am very confident" the state bridge system is safe, Western said.
More bridge inspectors are on the job today than a decade ago, more people work in the state bridge office and bridge reports now go through an added review.
Inspection reports are "much more robust," Western said. Minnesota's 2007 collapse inspired changes across the country, increasing checks on everything from bridge decks to paint.
Each state-owned bridge is inspected every two years. For those deemed "fracture critical"—meaning they may have a higher potential for failure—another inspection is added in the off year.
One part of some bridges that received special attention in the past decade: gussets.
Federal authorities determined part of the reason the 35W bridge fell was that gussets that connected parts of the bridge were too thin.
Also determined to be a problem was the weight of construction material stored on the bridge, which was undergoing a renovation. The state now requires most construction material to be stored off bridges.
Counties may have made fewer changes after 35W than the state.
"I think we improved our practices, but didn't need to reinvent them," Stahl said.
One of the changes that local governments, especially, faced is when they can inspect bridges.
Stahl said his county and many others tended to inspect bridges in the winter, when their crews had more time. But federal guidelines now order inspections to occur when water under bridges is flowing, so the underwater part of bridge supports can be checked.
County bridge inspections often come in the fall "before the snow flies," Stahl said.
Western said the collapse produced a "lack of confidence," which needed to change.
While Minnesotans remain concerned about bridges, Western said, "I think there is a loss of focus around the country."
For Minnesota transportation workers, maintaining focus is easy. Of about 100 people in the state bridge office, about 40 remain there from a decade ago, and remember the collapse of the state's busiest bridge, which carried 141,000 vehicles a day.
"It still is painful," Western said with the collapse anniversary days away.
Here is a list of how many local bridges were repaired each year since the 35W collapse:
This list shows how many state bridges were fixed in those years (funded both through a new fund set up after the collapse and regular funding):
Jackson County Engineer Tim Stahl met with a Minnesota Department of Transportation official on July 31, 2007, the day before the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.
"We were talking about inadequate funding," Stahl recalled nearly a decade later. "I said there has to be a trigger to get more funding."
That trigger came with the collapse, when legislators increased transportation spending, including putting extra money into bridge replacement and repair for a decade.
The state funded state bridge improvements at $2.5 billion in the last decade, a program that is ending.
Local governments depend on money the state raises by selling bonds, a process that has been hit or miss as politicians often cannot agree on how much to borrow or whether they should.
"What I would love to see ... is a dedicated funding stream for bridges," Stahl said.
Even when bonding money is available, Stahl said, Twin Cities bridges often cost so much that relatively few rural projects get funded. In one recent case, Jackson County was forced to use other transportation funds to match federal money to replace a bridge.
Many in state government transportation circles also crave dedicated funded.
With many bridges nearing the end of their planned lives, State Bridge Engineer Kevin Western said, "we are going to need some additional funding."
Transportation funding remains a divisive topic among Republicans and Democrats. And President Donald Trump's proposal to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects, such as highways, is not clear about where he would get the money and how it would be spent.