Should this bridge be open?

Corroded strands of rebar jut from the sides and pillars of the cracked Hwy. 36 bridge near Stillwater, while jagged pieces of fallen concrete litter the ground below.

Corroded strands of rebar jut from the sides and pillars of the cracked Hwy. 36 bridge near Stillwater, while jagged pieces of fallen concrete litter the ground below.

Every day, nearly 10,000 vehicles travel eastbound over the crumbling structure. Most of the people in the huge trucks, cars and school buses on the bridge are unaware that it has been listed federally as "basically intolerable."

The Hwy. 36 span, crossing over Hwy. 95, appears to be the only structurally deficient bridge on a major Twin Cities highway to carry such a critical label. But throughout Minnesota, hundreds of thousands of drivers cross over steadily deteriorating bridges. Many are considered to be in worse shape than the Interstate 35W span before its collapse and have been on replacement lists for years.

Taxpayers will have to spend a minimum of $1.4 billion over the next two decades to repair or replace the metro area's aging bridges, the Minnesota Department of Transportation estimates.

Deciding when bridges get repaired or replaced involves an array of complex factors including political battles over budgets, engineering assessments, and public outcries. Closing a bridge is rare.

State Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, steamed Friday as she stood under the Hwy. 36 bridge, which is in her district, looking for the first time at its dilapidation.

"This is alarming," said Saltzman, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee. "You just don't want to drive across this bridge."

While the public finds federal labels such as "intolerable" and "deficient" alarming, experts downplay the public's perception of such terms and say they don't necessarily translate into a bridge being unsafe. "It is not a safety issue where the public needs to be concerned," said Dan Dorgan, the state's top bridge engineer.

Replacement is on hold

The Hwy. 36 bridge was scheduled to be torn down as part of a larger project to install a new bridge over the nearby St. Croix River. The new bridge has been stalled, so more repairs are being made to the Hwy. 36 bridge instead.

After the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, John Sievert, a Republican constituent of Saltzman's, sent her photos of the bridge, which is a mile south of Stillwater. "This bridge is a disaster waiting to happen," he warned in his letter.

Until then, Saltzman said she was not aware of just how badly the bridge needed major repairs. "Who drives under a bridge looking up?" she asked.

An inspection report from July 2006 gave the bridge a sufficiency rating of 28.3 on a scale of zero to 100. A rating under 50 means a bridge needs monitoring, might need to be replaced and is eligible for federal replacement funding.

Saltzman called MnDot and learned that $733,000 worth of repairs -- including redecking, reinforcement bars and reconstruction of expansion bearings -- is scheduled to begin in September. Plans call for lane diversions and a temporary bypass. The work is expected to take about a month.

"I wonder what kind of phone calls the governor would get if this bridge was in his district," Saltzman said. "I'm wondering what kind of recommendations he could give me on how to proceed. Who do the people go to? Why didn't I know this? Why am I supposed to crawl under bridges to find out about such a bridge? Why should I trust these bridge ratings?"

Cayuga span carries more cars

The Cayuga Bridge in St. Paul, a 1,285-foot span of I-35E just north of downtown, is rated better than the Hwy. 36 bridge, but appears likely to be replaced sooner.

The bridge has been on replacement lists for years. It has a sufficiency rating of 40.8 and carries nearly 150,000 vehicles a day. Part of a bigger, $197 million I-35E improvement project from I-94 north to Maryland Av., Cayuga has nonetheless been on hold.

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