Scary at Any Speed

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The Lafayette Bridge was considered worse than the I-35W bridge–until the 35W bridge fell.

Among the many Minnesota bridges deemed structurally shakier than the Interstate Hwy. 35W span that collapsed, killing at least nine people, there’s one that Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett makes a point of staying off of – the Lafayette Bridge carrying U.S. Hwy. 52 over the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

“When trucks are roaring by, that bridge moves,” said Bennett, a former Republican state legislator who is outspoken in calling for new state funding for roads, bridges and transit. “I just avoid that bridge. I sure don’t like sitting on it.”

Opened in 1968, the Lafayette shares many of the flaws of the fallen span upriver: a lack of structural safeguards to keep it up if one part fails, beams and girders rated in poor condition and no plans to replace it anytime soon.

While the I-35W bridge wasn’t scheduled for replacement before 2020, the Lafayette is on the waiting list for rebuilding and widening to six lanes in 2011. That’s because it’s considered to be in worse shape than the doomed span before it fell down. The Lafayette “has developed a history of structural steel fatigue problems that may not pose an immediate safety risk, but still require the constant attention of MnDOT’s bridge inspectors,” says the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

According to the National Bridge Inventory database, the Lafayette is in need of more than $18 million in repairs.

As early as 1975, a main beam of the bridge cracked, lowering the roadway 7 inches and nearly toppling the entire structure. The bridge was temporarily shut down, jacked up and reinforced. Despite further problems over the past 32 years, the bridge still carries 81,000 vehicles daily over a 362-foot main span 51 feet above the Mississippi. Much of the heavy traffic is large trucks barred from the I-35E parkway between the river and downtown St. Paul.

In addition to its structural deficiencies, the Lafayette has safety risks in the traffic signals at its northern end, which cause frequent backups along the two-lane northbound bridge section. Bennett said he sometimes drives over the bridge going south toward an open freeway, but not the other way.

As a county commissioner, Bennett bears responsibility for an extensive system of Ramsey County roads that are just as short of funds to maintain them as trunk highways such as U.S. 52. With rebuilding now running up to $3 million a mile, he said, “we can redo a county road once every 120 years.”

Increasing the gasoline and vehicle registration taxes, now under discussion at the State Capitol, would ease that funding crunch because some of the money is dedicated to county roads and city streets. Bennett hopes that legislators and the governor can overcome their partisan differences in the wake of the I-35W bridge tragedy and come up with a long-term transportation financing solution.

“There’s all kinds of political bumper stickers on our cars, but they’re all on the same roads and bridges,” Bennett said. “We’ve got to pay for infrastructure, and it doesn’t take a mental giant to figure out our roads need some work. Common sense has got to prevail sooner or later.”

Micro-loans changing the face and future of rural Minnesota
by Lee Egerstrom and Ben Pierson, Minnesota 2020
Financing ‘Mom and Pop’ entrepreneurs–and especially a lot of Moms.

Micro-lending is changing rural Minnesota – region by region, county by county, city by city — as word of new kinds of loans and business development services has spread to aspiring entrepreneurs.

You can throw in gender by gender and ethnic group by ethnic group as well, says Berny Berger, micro-enterprise program officer for the Southwest Minnesota Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson.

Micro-loans, generally of less than $30,000, are frequently extended to nontraditional borrowers.

Since 2003, Southwest Initiative has made 113 micro enterprise loans totaling $1.25 million for start-up and small businesses. The average loan is about $10,000; the smallest so far was $500 for a new business.

Southwest Initiative is one of several regional offices established by the McKnight Foundation to foster economic development through grants, loans and technical training programs. Most micro-loans are made to start-up and small companies lacking the equity or assets usually needed to leverage commercial loans.

“There are some limited liability companies in the program, but most are independent or individual proprietorships,” Berger said. “You might say we specialize in helping ‘Mom and Pop’ entrepreneurs and especially a lot of Moms.”

More than half of the entrepreneurs helped by the loan program have been women. And reflecting demographic changes in rural Minnesota, 25 percent of the loan recipients are minority business entrepreneurs.

The four regional centers in the 18-county area served by Southwest Initiative – Hutchinson, Marshall, Willmar and Worthington — are magnets for new immigrants to Minnesota. They bring “a lot of creativity, a lot of new entrepreneurs,” Berger said.

Reaching prospective entrepreneurs in small towns far from regional centers remains a challenge, economic development specialists say. Without coordinated economic development information reaching all cities and counties, people with business dreams don’t always learn about venture capital and business education resources available to them in rural communities.

This has long been a problem in Minnesota and, indeed, almost everywhere in the world. Government agencies tend to channel resources to larger businesses and projects that offer potential for greater returns on public investment. Nonprofits like the regional initiatives and nongovernmental organizations are starting to change public thinking about the importance of small business.

Some of the renewed understanding of micro-enterprise is coming from business experiences abroad.

Micro-lending became widely recognized in 2006 when economist Muhammad Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work through the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Grameen’s small business loans seldom exceeded $100, but they turned impoverished and unemployed Third World people into entrepreneurs. Bank records show that 97 percent of the micro-loan clients were women.

Pressure from local economic developers and nonprofit groups is nudging U.S. states away from chasing smokestacks and toward helping entrepreneurs start or expand small companies.

All too often, states put all their eggs — resources and services — into big-factory basket, where they compete for transient firms that might well move to China or Third World countries after state and community subsidies expire.

By contrast, local entrepreneurs and their firms are connected to their communities. While small, these businesses grow by adding one, three or five jobs over time, stabilizing and diversifying local economies.

Nonprofit groups such as regional initiative funds, Small Business Development Centers based primarily at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and community banks are now emphasizing economic development from the ground up, through local entrepreneurs.

The Southwest Minnesota Initiative Foundation offers a Micro-Enterprise Loan Program, a Small Communities Loan Program, a Regional Centers Loan Program, a Renewable Energy Loan Program and a Revolving Loan Fund. Details can be found at www.swmnfoundation.org/home.html

The Twin Cities metropolitan area has several micro lenders, too, including the Minneapolis Consortium of Community Developers, the African Development Center, the Neighborhood Development Center and WomenVenture.

The Aspen Institute lists 500 micro-lending institutions now at work across the United States. Check here for micro- enterprise and lending programs in Minnesota.

Minnesota’s Digital Divide
By Ben Pierson, Minnesota 2020
Getting stuck on the information dirt road

The Internet is a rapidly changing place, with new features, services and tools being developed all the time. Today’s technologies like YouTube videos or iTunes music downloads rely on Internet connections handling a lot of data fast. A high-speed broadband connection offers opportunities for entrepreneurship, telecommuting and online learning.

However, for people without access to broadband connections the Internet is a pothole-filled road rather than the information superhighway. Dial-up users are increasingly unable to make the best use of the Internet because their systems can’t handle the amount of data on many websites. The broadband/dial-up speed gap is especially pronounced in rural areas.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development reports that 39.7 percent of Minnesota rural Internet users had broadband connections in 2006, compared with 57 percent in the Twin Cities area. The center’s annual Minnesota Internet Study, subtitled “Broadband enters the mainstream,” is available here.

The report also noted that rural broadband penetration surged from 27.4 percent in 2005, accelerating at twice the pace of the preceding years. But many outstate Minnesotans still suffer from lack of access to high-speed connections. According to the report, 22 percent of rural Internet users would switch to broadband were it available where they live, compared with 10 percent of metro users.

Whatever the reasons, lagging use of broadband puts rural Internet users at a technological and economic disadvantage. Online possibilities like telecommuting and voice over Internet telephone service are simply unavailable to those without broadband access.

Broadband is already beginning to drive the global economy. Minnesota will become a full player in that economy only when we all get up to speed on the Internet.