Progress Has Been Made on Bridge Safety, But Work Still to Come

August 01, 2017 11:03 PM

Watch KSTP's special look back at the Interstate 35W bridge collapse beginning at 10:35 p.m. Tuesday ...

In the wake of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse 10 years ago, state lawmakers targeted 172 bridges most in need of repair - setting aside billions of dollars in state and federal funding to make sure Minnesota's bridges were safe.

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A decade later, demonstrable progress has been made. But the state's top bridge experts also said there are substantial challenges still to come.

RELATED: 35W: 10 Years Later

The changes

More than 600,000 bridges across the country are now looked at much differently than they would've been a decade ago.

Bridge inspections are more detailed. And in Minnesota, the way bridges are designed and maintained has changed as well.

WATCH: Ceremony Marking 10th Anniversary of I-35W Bridge Collapse

Those changes partially stem from the state legislature's 2008 decision to fund a bridge rehab and replacement program, which experts said has successfully led to the rehabilitation or replacement of the vast majority of those 172 bridges most in need of repair.

Minnesota Department of Transportation State Bridge Engineer Kevin Western said bridges in the state are as safe as they should be for now.

But he added that doesn't mean they'll be as safe as they should be for long.

Challenges ahead

"We have a wave of older bridges that are coming at us," Western explained. "The interstate was built about 50 years ago. Those bridges are going to need more attention and that means more funds to be able to do that work."


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To understand why, one needs to understand the term structurally deficient.

It means a bridge - like the Stillwater Lift Bridge - is in poor condition and may need to be rehabbed or replaced. The lift bridge is being replaced by the new St. Croix Crossing, and if you dig into the bridge inspection reports from before and after the I-35W collapse, it's not hard to see why.

In 2006, the lift bridge was already considered structurally deficient. On a scale of 0 to 100, it had an already-poor 32.8 sufficiency rating.

That had slipped all of the way to 2.8 by 2013 when the state rehabbed the bridge. And still, in 2016, it had just a 17.8 rating. That's more than a decade with a score well below 50, which is the cutoff for when a bridge is eligible to be replaced.

Reports also pointed out up to a 1/2 inch of pack rust with severe section loss at some gusset plate connections, and that some lacing bars had completely corroded through.

So while the state has seen a significant reduction in structurally-deficient bridges since the I-35W collapse, many more will become structurally deficient over the next 10 or so years.

"If you do the math, we're going to need to replace about 75 bridges every year and each bridge is worth about a million and a half to two million dollars," Western said.

That means, according to MnDOT's estimates, it will cost the state roughly $125 million to $150 million each year just to keep pace with wear and tear.

And the problem isn't just about money.

Western said the state is dealing with a huge shortage in talent too. Much like the push to get children more involved in math and science in schools, MnDOT is pushing to get kids more involved in engineering.

"There is a great shortage coming at us," Western said. "So trying to have the right people in place to do that work, that's probably our biggest challenge."

Conclusions

"This is life and death."

That's how former MnDOT Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg described it. He's one of many transportation experts, including engineers and inspectors, who told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that when it comes to our bridges, time is what concerns them most.

"It's a little bit like if you have a 25-year-old house," Tinklenberg explained. "And all of the sudden your hot water heater goes out and you cobble together the money to replace the hot water heater. And then you say, 'There. I've taken care of that. I don't have to worry about home repairs anymore.'

"Obviously that's not the case."

Credits

Josh Rosenthal

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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