Mn/DOT has spoken. The Hwy. 43 Interstate Bridge in Winona will be ugly, will stymie river beautification projects, will obstruct our views, will be cheap, will spoil the locations of businesses and homes it will not buy out, and will create a bottleneck as it enters Winona into a neighborhood it will ruin. Did I miss anything?
Oh, yes. Is this a calculated ploy on the part of Mn/DOT to further delay any bridge project in Winona?
Before the I-35W bridge went down in Minneapolis in 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145, the bridge that spans the Mississippi River at Winona was merely a dot on a Mn/DOT timeline — scheduled to be addressed in 2017, ten years in the future, along with other truss bridges. In fact, the day the I-35W bridge collapsed, Mn/DOT inspection crews were actually on the Winona bridge. Our bridge passed the inspection with “no critical findings.” The bridge was not classified by Mn/DOT as “structurally deficient.” It was categorized as “fracture critical,” a classification given to all through truss bridges, because they crack — as do all bridges — and must be inspected and repaired on a regular basis.
A spokeswoman for Mn/DOT told the Winona Post in August 2007, “Bridges are like houses. As soon as you move into them and live in them, they begin to age, so you keep them up through repairs. You can live in them for years and you don’t anticipate them falling down around you because you fix them up.” In other words, at that time, not only was the bridge deemed safe, but its replacement, scheduled for 2012, was postponed to 2017.
Winona area citizens pushed away any worries about the Interstate Bridge, as catastrophic flooding on August 18 and 19, 2007, ravaged the area, taking lives, leaving scores homeless, and demanding time and funding from citizens and the government.
However, elected officials and state bureaucrats never let a good tragedy pass without trying to capitalize on it. Anyone who had a free moment and an election coming up raced to Winona to warn of the dire consequences of being so cheap as to not immediately replace our bridge by paying more taxes. Well, actually they didn’t race. They waited until June of 2008.
In an 8:00 p.m. hurriedly called press conference on June 1, 2008, the head of Mn/DOT announced that the Interstate Bridge was closed to traffic “indefinitely” so crews could fix corroded gusset plates. The closing, which lasted 11 days, disrupted the lives of thousands in the Winona area, cost Winona area businesses substantial loss of revenue, and prompted the city to hire shuttle boats to get area residents to and from work. Politicians from federal to local weighed in, saying that whatever was being done in the name of safety had to be for our own good.
Mn/DOT later admitted they had known for years about the corrosion. In a footnote, it was revealed that the gusset plates on the Winona bridge are much thicker than those on the I-35W bridge. It is my personal opinion that the Department of Transportation suffered a major embarrassment (and with it loss of prestige among state elected officials who control the purse strings) when the I-35W bridge collapsed. In order to show that they weren’t actually asleep on the job, they fixated on Winona’s bridge (oh, those nasty gusset plates) and decided to play it to the hilt. They were able to announce to the Legislature a $2.5 billion plan to fix 11 state bridges, Winona included, ASAP!
Of course, the drama surrounding the bridge closure was not lost on local citizens, many of whom assumed that they were taking their lives in their hands each time they crossed the bridge. The loud clunk of tires over the metal joints of the bridge road bed was a sure sign, they thought, that they would be thrown into the watery depths to their deaths. Just what Mn/DOT wanted them to think; the better to get a bigger appropriation from the Legislature.
Time passed, a recession hit that year. Gradually, Mn/DOT began to rue the day they scared the bejasus out of us Winonans. We have long memories here, and only one bridge.
As area citizens continued to cross the bridge, local leaders continued to agitate for some definitive news from the state about how big a new bridge would be (2 or 4 lanes), what it would look like, where it would be, what impact it would have on the city, who would build it, and when it would be built. Fair questions to an agency that had announced that Winona’s bridge was on the fast track.
Mn/DOT has announced the answers to those questions, and very few of the answers are satisfactory. The design of the bridge is the least attractive of the options open to Mn/DOT. It would have a negative impact on views of Winona and the river from the bridge itself, and will spoil the historic integrity of the setting of the existing bridge. Mn/DOT says it doesn’t have the money for something better. The bridge contractor, Mn/DOT says, will not be chosen in a bidding process; apparently money is no object in that regard. The intersection of the bridge with Fourth Street in Winona will be marked with a stoplight, and will be narrower than it should be — no money for land acquisition, they say.
Mn/DOT Project Manager Terry Ward, who was in town last week to present the plans to a less-than-enthusiastic Bridge Public Advisory Commission, seemed to indicate that it was our own darned fault that things were not exactly perfect, saying that community feedback had been to “Get going on the project.”
First they scare us, close down the bridge to great inconvenience, then they let deadline after deadline expire during the bridge planning stage. We hear nothing of substance from Mn/DOT publicly, and they wonder why we ask what’s happening.
Facts: the bridge is not falling down; Minnesota just passed an enormous tax package; a new bridge will be there for a very long time. Mn/DOT: go back to your drawing boards in St. Paul and this time, reallocate some money to the Winona bridge and do it
A rose by any other name…