The story of the Interstate Bridge connecting Winona to Wisconsin is a mystery. A political mystery, or rather, a mystery written by politicians for their own benefit. The only trouble is, all the rumors, half-truths and downright dissembling that make up this story are not harmless. What started out to be political power plays and a chance for valuable sound bites and public facetime have turned into a nightmare for us.
When the Hwy. 35 bridge in Minneapolis collapsed in August 2007, it sent shivers down the spines of people who daily cross one of the over 13,000 highway bridges in Minnesota. In Winona, that vague uneasiness turned to fear about the Hwy. 43 Interstate Bridge when it was suddenly closed in June 2008 for “gusset plate” issues.
The closing of the bridge in Winona could not have been handled more ineptly, or more secretly. It closed suddenly on the evening of Tuesday, June 3, after Wisconsin citizens who work in Winona had gone home for the day. The city, under the leadership of Mayor Jerry Miller and Eric Sorensen, who was then the city manager, did not issue a press release until 24 hours later, late Wednesday afternoon. There was an emergency press conference held Tuesday evening, but not all of the press were invited to attend. There was also a meeting with some business leaders, but it, too, was secret. The Chamber of Commerce offered to let its members know, but city officials told it not to do so, only wanting to meet with a few people from larger businesses. Among employers excluded from planning was Winona State University, with 200 employees needing to cross the river. Even the Chamber held meetings about the bridge and excluded some members.
Ironically, only a matter of days before the bridge closing threw Winona and Wisconsin residents into a transportation nightmare, Sorensen and a few other non-elected city leaders met with MnDOT to talk about plans to replace or rehab the bridge in 2017. It was then announced that the date was rescheduled to 2014, because of the dangerous condition of the bridge. Why was the city reluctant to share these facts?
State, federal, area, and local politicians flocked to Winona to have their pictures taken in front of the bridge. We’re doing something! they said. But since that horrible two-week period when the Interstate Bridge was closed, the secrecy continues. This time it appears, if city leaders are to be believed, that the city is left out of the loop much of the time, a huge dose of its own medicine. MnDOT is now charged with planning a rehab or replacement project for 2014. It doesn’t seem likely that 2014 is a realistic goal, since many of the deadlines for the process have come and gone.
Meanwhile, residents and business owners on both sides of the river live in fear of another closing. Some live in fear of a bridge collapse. Others fear that collapse could be imminent and caused by large trucks.
But although I am skeptical that these government agencies can get this project going in a timely manner, I don’t think that the employees of these agencies and of our local governments would willingly delay if collapse of the bridge was a possibility.
I think that we are like Dorothy being blown into Oz. The political wizards have created such a hullabaloo over the bridge, in hopes of forwarding their own agendas, that they can’t back away now. I am convinced that we won’t get a bridge (because our need for a bridge is not dire, despite the current bridge’s deficiencies, especially in handling traffic spilling into Winona) before the original date of action, 2017.
So I sleep at night, even though I cross the bridge quite often. But I do keep the pontoon boat ready, in case we have to deliver our newspapers to Wisconsin by boat, as we did in June of 2008.
In the meantime, the Winona Post will do its best to ferret out the truth from the fantastical world of Emerald City (supply your favorite governmental body here).