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WINONA, MINN. -- Barricaded and empty, the Hwy. 43 bridge at Winona stands over the Mississippi River as it has since 1941. But its emergency closure Tuesday after a safety inspection is proving to be a direct route to chaos.
Bars and gas station operators are worried about their businesses. Employers wonder whether their workers can arrive on time -- or, given the high price of gas, can afford to arrive at all.
"Even though the bridge is still up, it's like it's down,'' said Winona Mayor Jerry Miller. Detours to the nearest river crossings at Wabasha and La Crosse can add as much as 70 miles to a one-way trip for many of the estimated 2,800 people who cross the river every day.
But some relief may be on the way starting Monday. Winona Mayor Jerry Miller said Wednesday night that the city hopes to ease the commuting nightmare via a riverboat shuttle.
City officials will announce plans today for the shuttle, which will run between Latsch Island and Levee Park. Commuters will drive to a holding area and buses then will shuttle them to the riverboat landing, Miller said. The Island Girl, an excursion boat, then will ferry commuters across the river.
On the other side, shuttle buses and vans will drive commuters to various points in the city.
The riverboat shuttles will cost $5 and run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, Miller said.
"Our first goal is to get people who are working here and in Wisconsin to their places of work,'' he said.
State Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel said Wednesday that no decision has been made on whether to repair or replace the bridge, and declined to predict how long it will be closed. Transportation officials said they hope to have a preliminary analysis in two weeks to determine whether the bridge can be partly opened.
Detoured and delayed
In the meantime, Winona struggled to deal with the disruption and inconvenience.
Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, said the closing "has the potential to be a multimillion-dollar disaster" for tourism-dependent southeastern Minnesota. And the city surveyed local employers to find out how many Wisconsinites were in their workforces, said Winona City Manager Eric Sorenson.
Noting that the response to the Aug. 1 collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis was swift, he said, "We have the same expectation. We have the same need."
The bridge's abrupt closure following the discovery of corrosion and holes in its gusset plates is the latest evidence of the state's willingness to close bridges when inspections raise questions about safety.
Gusset plates have been a primary focus of investigations on why the 35W bridge fell. Federal guidance in light of the investigation's findings has prompted transportation agencies nationwide to scrutinize the gusset plates holding together aging steel bridges.
In Minnesota, the discovery of bent gusset plates prompted the sudden closure of the Hwy. 23 bridge in St. Cloud in March. In May, the state closed lanes on Duluth's Blatnik Bridge because of concerns its gusset plates weren't adequate for a bridge whose deck had been made heavier over the years.
"We're sort of in a learning process, I'll have to admit that," Minnesota state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said. "We haven't gone through this intense look at gusset plates previously."
Dorgan said repairs were made eight years ago to one of the bridge's gusset plates that showed rust.
The Winona bridge had been scheduled for replacement by 2017 before legislators passed a transportation spending package this year. That schedule is now being revised with new money for bridges. Sorenson said the construction date had been moved up to 2015 before problems were found this week.
Bicyclist stuck in Minnesota
The 2,289-foot-long bridge is the main artery between Winona, a town of about 30,000, and the Wisconsin communities of Fountain City and Arcadia. It carries about 11,600 vehicles daily.
"No one is going to cross unless it's an emergency vehicle -- no walking, no bicycles, nothing," Winona County Sheriff Dave Brand said Wednesday. "We're getting a lot of calls, people upset" with the extra hour or so they face each way in order to cross the river, he said.
Early Wednesday, a bicyclist ignored the closure and rolled into Minnesota. "When he comes back, he'll probably be arrested," Brand said.
That bicyclist, Jim Grant of Bluff Siding, Wis., said there was no indication on the Wisconsin side that he should not cross. His wife walked across the bridge Wednesday morning, he said, adding that workers on the bridge greeted him with waves.
"They basically have got us trapped," said Grant, who was heading to a house-painting job in Minnesota. "Just doing it blindly like that, without giving any notice, is absurd."
Joe Schwartz had one of the few Wisconsin license plates at the Sinclair gas station near the Winona end of the bridge. Schwartz's drive from Ettrick, Wis., via La Crosse to Kendell Door and Hardware in Winona was a half-hour longer without the bridge, and he estimated that the detour will cost him $40 to $80 a week more in gas.
Commuters are going to be using a lot more gas, but they might not buy it from Jim LaRue. He manages the Sinclair station near the bridge. At lunchtime, four of the 25 pumps were in use, about half the number on a normal day, he said. "We were tripping over each other this morning -- nothing to do," he said.
LaRue hopes the bridge can be at least partly reopened soon. But he also considered what might have happened had problems not been found: "Maybe we gotta pat that guy from MnDOT on the back."
Businesses on the Wisconsin side are also affected.
Gayle McCasland and her two siblings "were in shock" when they heard about the closing. But they still plan to open a bar called Sweetwaters in Fountain City on July 1. All three live in Winona and will have to make the 60-mile drive. They're not sure their potential customers will be so willing.
"We're just going to have a lot of Wisconsin residents at first," she said -- or Minnesotans willing to take a very expensive cab ride.