Wash. Ave. bridge to be strengthened

Traffic changes and construction will become commonplace as crews prepare the Washington Avenue bridge for the Central Corridor light-rail line by 2014.In order to support a 106,000-pound light-rail vehicle, crews are adding two additional columns on each pier and four trusses to the 46-year-old bridge.Weeks after the collapse of the I-35W bridge in 2007, a Central Corridor Management Committee study found that the Washington Avenue Bridge was “fracture-critical,” meaning if one part of it failed, the rest was susceptible to collapse.The I-35W Bridge was described as fracture-critical in a recently published book by several University of Minnesota faculty members titled, “The City, the River, the Bridge.”University civil engineering professor Roberto Ballarini devoted a chapter in the book to the failure of a single gusset plate that was built too thin, citing it as a major factor in the collapse. Added weight from construction equipment contributed to the disaster.Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design, discussed the concept of fracture-critical designs in the book. He said bridge designers have learned about the perils of such designs in recent decades, and the I-35W disaster was a stark reminder.”The engineering community has really learned the lesson of the I-35W Bridge,” Fisher said.But the two bridges have very different designs and there’s little worry of a collapse on Washington Avenue, said Tom Galambos, a professor of emeritus at the University’s civil engineering department who specializes in structural engineering.Galambos said that although the Washington Avenue Bridge is currently safe, in the aftermath of the I-35W Bridge collapse engineers are going to add more than enough support and strength to it.”They’re going to beef this up,” Galambos said.The bridge underwent minor construction in 2008 to reinforce the pedestrian deck, but that work was independent of the light-rail construction.Traffic has been restricted to one lane in both directions on the north side of the bridge for about a year. Last week, crews began determining how to best remove the roadway on the south side, according to project spokeswoman Laura Baenen. After replacing the south side lanes, they will redo the north.Traffic won’t be completely halted on the bridge during construction except on rare occasions and with plenty of public notice, Baenen added.The bus stop in front of Blegen Hall has been moved west, and the stop is one-third the size, according to Parking and Transportation Services spokeswoman Jacqueline Brudlos. Continue Reading

Census shows small towns can reinvent themselves

A few generations back, small towns used to generate their own strength and economic activity. Now, rural Minnesota communities are dependent on their proximity to regional centers, such as Willmar, Worthington, Marshall and Mankato. Let’s take my hometown of Kerkhoven in west-central Minnesota for example. Back in 2000, it had 759 people. By the time the 2010 Census was taken, it still had 759 people. Continue Reading

First reading: Identification, please?

Minnesotans need to have photo identification: to drive a car, order a drink, buy cigarettes or write a check. But should we need a photo ID in order to vote? Those who would answer “yes” are making headway in the Legislature. Twice in one week, members of a House committee voted to require all Minnesotans to present a valid, government-issued photo ID before voting. On Feb. Continue Reading

Amid barrage of legislation, workers ask ‘Where is the focus on jobs?’

Construction workers in hard hats and safety vests mixed with nurses and professional employees at a packed legislative hearing Thursday on a proposal to freeze wages and undermine public workers’ right to collective bargaining. Amid a slew of such anti-worker legislation, union leaders asked, “Where is the focus on jobs?” In a scene likely to be repeated many times in the coming months, unions and allies turned out to protest legislation they say will undermine the middle class and destroy – not create – good-paying jobs in Minnesota. The bill before the House Governmental Operations Committee, HF 192, authored by Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, encapsulated many of the issues of concern to workers. In addition to mandating a wage freeze for state employees and undercutting their rights under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act, it originally mandated a 15 percent cut in the state workforce and included a so-called “Right to Work” provision. Continue Reading

This Congress’s biggest job is to create jobs

Minnesota U.S. Senator Al Franken says that solving the state’s ailing economy, including creating more jobs in the areas hardest hit economically, “is the biggest thing that I’m focused on.” According to the December 2010 Organizing Apprentice Project (OAP) racial equity policy brief, the current jobless rate for Black Minnesotans is 22.5 percent – and 23 percent for Black women.The state’s overall unemployment rate is around seven percent. During an interview with the MSR on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Franken admitted that Congress must get started on improving the job picture, especially in the Black community, “which has a much higher unemployment rate.” While in town last Monday, the first-term senator had a “causal lunch” at El-Amin Fish House on the city’s North Side. Manager Sharon El-Amin said that Franken and a couple members of his staff unexpectedly stopped by. Continue Reading

Community program confronts challenges of caring for immigrants with hearing loss

Say a hospital patient needs an x-ray, typically a procedure that is widely understood in American culture. No problem.   But what if that patient is Russian, once lived near Chernobyl in the Ukraine, site of a terrible nuclear accident in the 1980s, and is terrified at the thought of radiation, plus that person not only does not speak English, but does not speak because he is deaf? Explaining becomes a major task.  That “what-if” is a real life example of the challenges facing Minnesota hospitals these days as staffs encounter increasing numbers of immigrants, including deaf immigrants, thought to be about 10 percent of both general and immigrant populations. The story helps explain why Hennepin County Medical Center is expanding its services by opening the Deaf Immigrant Center for Education this week.Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them. It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.Community Sketchbook articles may be republished or distributed, in print or online, with credit to MinnPost and the foundations.Having a language barrier as well as hearing loss multiplies the challenges of explaining health information, says Nathan Ellis, coordinator of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services at HCMC. Continue Reading

Minnesota Catholics unveil legislative agenda: Ban on gay marriage, help for the poor

The Minnesota Catholic Conference, an organization representing “the united voice of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota on public policy matters,” has released its legislative priorities for Minnesota’s 2012 session. At the top of the list is a constitutional amendment banning relationship rights for same-sex couples. The group also says it will work to protect the safety net for the poor, even advocating tax increases if necessary. In the Catholic Spirit, a newsletter of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Peter Noll, the MCC’s education director, said, “It’s a clarion call from our faith… Continue Reading

Bill to shrink state workforce approved

The state’s government would get a lot smaller if a bill approved by a House committee becomes law. Sponsored by Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina), HF4 would require a 15 percent reduction in the size and associated costs of the state’s executive branch workforce by 2015. Members of the House Government Operations and Elections Committee voted to approve the bill and referred it to the House State Government Finance Committee. The bill would establish an early retirement incentive program, and would further authorize layoffs, a hiring freeze and other measures necessary to achieve the reduction. Downey said the bill is intended not as a budget-balancing tool, but as a catalyst to bring about a fundamental redesign of government services. Continue Reading

From state to private health insurance

The Healthy Minnesota Contribution Program would move certain MinnesotaCare enrollees to private health care insurance, under a bill approved by the House Health and Human Services Reform Committee. Sponsored by Chairman Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud), HF8 would give a state subsidy to low income adults without children, and if approved by a federal waiver, low income adults with children, to purchase their own health care insurance. Those with family gross incomes between 133 percent and 275 percent of the federal poverty guidelines would meet the requirement for the subsidy.For another point of view, see Why I love MinnesotaCare. A person would pay a monthly contribution based on age and income. Continue Reading