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MnDOT overreacting to criticism? (06/08/2008)
By John Edstrom

MnDOT's hasty closing of Winona's Interstate Bridge raises many questions that are not easily answered. The late Tuesday bridge closing was treated as an emergency. Hapless Fountain City and other Wisconsin residents were not given enough warning to scurry home, and Latsch Island residents have not even been allowed to walk or bicycle back to downtown Winona, as if the imminent collapse of the bridge was expected. It is well and good to talk about "safety first," as MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel did at a Tuesday press conference. There are, according to inspectors, rust, corrosion, and visible holes in the gusset plates that hold the bridge together, enough to trigger an emergency closure.

But if these were so critical as to require emergency closure of the bridge shortly after the inspection commenced, what of the inspections conducted last August and April of 2007? The bridge passed the August inspection with no "critical findings." Yet less than a year later there are "visible holes" in the gussets that require emergency closure.

MnDOT spokesperson Kristine Hernandez says that there are different kinds of inspections and the present one is the first to focus on gusset plates, but that is very hard to credit. A bridge like this one is essentially held together with gusset plates. How could any kind of inspection miss holes and rust in these essential components that are so advanced as to require the bridge be shut down without notice nine months later, so fast that people can't even get home to Fountain City? In fact, last August Hernandez stated that "it is important to keep a watchful eye for welded and steel areas that might experience fatigue."

It has been pretty much determined that the I-35 bridge went down last year because of numerous gusset plates that were half the size they should have been. That would mean, at least to the layman, that the bridge had half the load-bearing capacity it was supposed to. It failed when grossly overloaded with construction equipment and materials. No such critical design flaw has been detected in Winona's bridge, merely rust and corrosion that begin the minute a bridge is put up. Routine maintenance is supposed to deal with such problems, which this bridge has received, as well as regular inspections.

It strains credibility to think that imminent catastrophic failure should suddenly be detected now in critical elements of the bridge's construction. Rust holes don't appear within nine months. If indeed this bridge is not safe for heavy truck traffic, why could it not be opened for cars, at least one lane? Nobody wants another bridge to go down, of course, and if there really is a possibility of that, ours must remain closed.

But I, for one, want good, solid evidence that our problem is really a bridge about to fail, rather than a state bureaucracy with its nose out of joint, overreacting to criticism and bad publicity due to the I-35 failure which was not caused by normal aging, or wear and tear.



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