by SARAH SQUIRES
and CHRIS ROGERS
In May, 2008, Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) officials announced the Interstate Bridge replacement project would be moved from 2017 to 2015 in an effort to address the current structure's "fracture critical" status. At that time, Mn/DOT Assistant Regional Engineer Greg Paulson told city leaders that the current bridge was not a good candidate for rehabilitation because needed repairs would be too extensive, and too expensive. The plan was, then, to replace the current structure with a new bridge at a cost of between $175 million and $250 million. By the following year, cost estimates dropped to between $150 million and $175 million without explanation, although project details had not been established.
Since that time, state transportation officials have determined that Mn/DOT will both rehabilitate the current bridge span and build a second, two-lane bridge upstream. On Thursday, Mn/DOT project leaders told a Winona audience that the state agency had only $142 million plus the cost of land acquisition (estimated at $12 million to $20 million) to spend on the work, and hoped that the cost of the bridge overhaul would come in within that new budget. A committee is currently being formed to examine aesthetic components of the recommended concrete, girder-style design. If folks in the region would like a more attractive option, such as a tied arch bridge design, estimated to cost $14 million to $15 million more, Mn/DOT officials said the project could be stalled until enough money becomes available.
If all goes perfectly including design and construction, securing of funds, and eminent domain proceedings the earliest the project may be completed is 2020, three years beyond the former 2017 planned completion date.
In an effort to pare back the cost of land acquisition, Mn/DOT proposed to take less private property to widen the intersection at Fourth and Winona streets than was previously detailed in maps prepared by Mn/DOT last year. (Visit www.winonapost.com to view a large illustration of bridge design plans.) Both the new, two-lane bridge and the current structure will end at the Fourth and Winona streets intersection, with a stoplight planned to direct traffic there. Both bridges will also connect to the existing bridge approach on the Wisconsin side, with the current structure to carry motorists to Wisconsin and the new bridge to serve motorists headed to Minnesota. The new bridge is also expected to include a 12-foot pedestrian and bicyclist path.
The current bridge will include two lanes of traffic until the top of the bridge, when vehicles will be forced to merge into the left lane or curve down onto Latsch Island, return to the Winona side and turn around. Bridge consultant Rick Brown said signage will help drivers recognize they must merge into one lane, adding that several computer modeling scenarios helped officials determine the best place to merge the two lanes on the bridge.
With potentially six years of construction ahead, Mn/DOT Project Manager Terry Ward assured the crowd that there were no plans to completely shut down the river crossing during that time. Traffic will use the current structure while the new bridge is built, and once the new bridge is in place, it will be used by traffic headed in both directions until the current bridge can be rehabilitated. Ward said there would be detours around the work, not closure. "We have no intention of shutting the bridge down as part of our [construction] staging," he said, but quickly added, "We can't predict what might happen."
Rehabilitation of the 70-year-old current bridge will not remove its "fracture critical" label. "Fracture critical" means the structure lacks redundancy in at least one structural component and could collapse if it failed. Brown said preserving the historic qualities had to be weighed against rehabilitation approaches, adding that fully addressing the bridge's fracture critical issues would have significantly altered the historic qualities of the structure.