As state money diminished, so did goals for bridge safety

  • Article by: MIKE KASZUBA and LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 16, 2007 - 9:54 PM

MnDOT officials said they revised goals to adjust to what other states were doing.

After setting an ambitious goal in the late 1990s of keeping 65 percent of Minnesota's bridges in good condition, state transportation officials retreated from the target as they fell behind in their efforts to reach it.

The top bridge engineer in the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) said the agency began discussing lowering the goal in 2003 and later dropped it to 55 percent, a reversal that came as MnDOT faced mounting financial challenges.

Though MnDOT officials said the goal was revised to reflect what other states were doing, and not to lower any safety standards, some legislators said the change is one more sign of how a beleaguered department was forced to align its expectations with dwindling financial resources.

As of last year, MnDOT was falling short of even its lowered goal.

"It would be rare if they said, 'We're going to lower our sights here,'" said Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, a member of the House Transportation Finance Division Committee. But Hausman said the message to legislators regarding overall transportation funding was clear.

"They would tell us privately that they're out of money," she said, "and they have grown increasingly alarmed."

Budget documents show that the lowering of the goal came as the percentage of state bridges in good condition continued to drop, from 56.8 percent in 2001 to a low of 51.8 percent in 2003. A state transportation plan, released in 2003, showed that without changes, the trend would worsen, leaving just 50 percent of the state's bridges in good condition by 2013 as measured by standards used in the federal National Bridge Inventory.

State bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said the 20-year goal was initially set in 1997, at a time when 62 percent of the state's bridges were listed as being in good condition. He said that the 65 percent goal was established without in-depth study, and that transportation officials had simply concluded that "higher must be better, rather than was this the right number."

By 2003, he said, state officials concluded the bar had been set too high after learning that nationwide, just 43 percent of bridges were listed in good condition.

"Once we started looking at where other states are, we realized the 65 percent was an unrealistic number, and the only way to achieve it was to replace bridges before they need to be replaced," he said. "We are among the highest in the country in terms of bridge condition."

In 2006, as a result of increased spending, the figure rose slightly to 53.9 percent.

The Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River, according to the federal government, had a superstructure that was rated in poor condition, a substructure in satisfactory condition and a deck in fair condition.

Under the federal rating system, a bridge is considered to be in good condition when its deck and underlying structure have a rating of at least 7 -- with no documented problems -- on a scale of 0 to 9.

Though there appear to be no national guidelines on goals, other states have set -- and, according to them, reached -- higher goals related to bridge conditions.

A Federal Highway Administration study showcased two states, Michigan and Utah, that had set much higher goals for bridges. In Utah's case, the study said, the state set a goal of having 65 percent of its bridges in very good condition, 25 percent in good condition and 10 percent in fair condition.

Michigan, the study added, set a goal of having 95 percent of freeway bridges and 85 percent of non-freeway bridges in good condition by 2008.

Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Schreck said the state, with the help of a 4 cent gas tax increase in 1997, went from having 63 percent of the state's bridges in good condition a decade ago to 87 percent in good condition currently. Schreck said the gas tax increase, along with other changes in federal funding, boosted the state transportation budget from $600 million to $1.2 billion in one year alone.

"We were working [under] the theory that you don't put an addition on your house while the roof's leaking," said Schreck, who said the state postponed some road expansion projects in favor of maintenance.

The lowering of the goal in Minnesota drew little scrutiny from legislators on the House and Senate transportation committees, and appears in a one-paragraph summary in the state transportation budget document that was presented to the Legislature.

"The culture of lack of resources has always tightened and ratcheted down on the department," said Sen. Dan Larson, DFL-Bloomington, a member of the Senate Transportation Budget and Policy Division Committee. "That has required them to reassess.

"This isn't a bridge that failed. This is government that failed," said Larson. While Gov. Tim Pawlenty "had his head in the sand" regarding transportation funding, Larson said, legislators also were to blame.

Another Senate transportation committee member, Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, said she recalled a transportation budget briefing this year in which MnDOT officials explained whether they were meeting a series of goals related to everything from pavement conditions to response times for snow removal. She said, however, that she did not specifically recall the discussion regarding bridges, and said she was unaware the goal had been lowered.

In a MnDOT biennial budget presentation in January 2005, which begins with a cover letter from state Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau, the goal for bridges is listed in a one-paragraph entry on page 42: "Mn/DOT's 20-year goal is to improve the structural condition of bridges so that 65% or greater are in good condition and 2% or less are in poor condition," the report stated.

"The good condition bridges have been on a decline," it added.

In MnDOT's biennial budget presentation dated Jan. 22 of this year, the goal for bridge conditions is stated as being 55 percent. "With preventative maintenance, good and satisfactory conditions can be prolonged," the report stated.

mkaszuba@startribune.com • 612-673-4388 lblake@startribune.com • 612-673-1711

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