Scary bridge tour


What’s spookier than a haunted house? Scarier than a Freddy Krueger movie? It’s the structural state of three major bridges in the Twin Cities’ east-metro area: the Lafayette, the Wakota and the Hastings, all of which span the Mississippi River.

On Wednesday former Department of Transportation bridge inspector Bart Andersen, who testified before Congress last week on MnDOT’s inability to keep up with bridge repairs, guided state lawmakers and reporters on an afternoon tour of those three bridges.

The timing of the event, sponsored by public employees’ union AFSCME and the St. Paul Area Trades and Labor Assembly, was no coincidence. Traveling across the three worn bridges, Andersen said, is scary business.

“Just because there’s something that needs to be fixed, it doesn’t mean it immediately gets fixed,” Andersen said, standing beneath the visibly weathered Lafayette Bridge, where U.S. Highway 52 crosses the river downtown St. Paul. “We don’t have the funding to do the repairs that need to be made.

“I don’t think people in Minnesota realize that their transportation system is broke.”

At the Wakota Bridge in South St. Paul, Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson and Sen. Kathy Saltzman of Woodbury expressed their constituents’ frustration with the effort to rebuild the Interstate 494 bridge between Washington and Dakota counties.

Work to rebuild the Wakota into a 10-lane bridge – five on a westbound span and five on an eastbound span – began in 2003, but two years into construction of the westbound span, inspectors discovered structural deficiencies, which significantly delayed the project.

Today, construction on the eastbound span has not begun, and traffic crawls along in both directions on the westbound span. Lawmakers doubt the project will meet its targeted completion date in 2009.

“People in the east metro are saying, ‘When do we get our bridge?’” Saltzman said. “People are asking what the problem is. There are people sitting on 494 every night, waiting to come home, and it’s costing businesses.”

Saltzman put the onus for finishing the project back on Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“I don’t trust MnDOT to get the job done,” she said. “The governor is the quarterback of the team. He directs the plays. The governor is going to have to be the one to make the decision that we cannot afford the cost of this bridge not being completed.

At the tour’s final stop, Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks stood underneath the two-lane bridge that carries traffic into and out of town along U.S. Highway 61, and he talked about his community’s effort to draw MnDOT’s attention to the structure’s apparent decay.

“We have been proactive,” Hicks said. “Only last March we met with MnDOT officials about the bridge. Not only does it have a deficiency structurally, but it’s obsolete.”

Hicks pointed out that four lanes of traffic flow on either side of the bridge, but it carries only two lanes. And although the bridge’s structure reportedly has holes bigger than a human head, MnDOT has told Hicks it likely will not replace the bridge until after 2020.

That’s scary stuff.

“This is on the mind of every Hastings individual,” Hicks said. “People in the community are concerned about the future of this bridge and getting a replacement.”