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In May 2006, two MnDOT inspectors completed their annual review of the steel-beamed Hastings Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River between Dakota and Washington counties. It was a crucial task.
The bridge, the busiest two-lane span in Minnesota, is covered with corrosion and cracks. And it's a fracture-critical structure: If one load-carrying part fails, the entire bridge will plummet into the river.
Back in the office, the inspectors filed their report. They flagged numerous structural problems on the 57-year-old bridge: thinning steel, corroding beams, frozen bearings, damaged girders. Many of the deficiencies had been reported a decade or more ago.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation again noted the bridge's flaws, but again did nothing to fix them. The bridge's deterioration has outraged people in the growing southeast metro area for years.
"The bottom line is, we shouldn't be screwing around," said Denny McNamara, a Republican legislator who represents Hastings, and whose father was a deputy MnDOT commissioner in the 1980s.
The condition of the Hastings Bridge, which carries 32,000 motorists a day, is emblematic of a larger problem at MnDOT that the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in August has brought starkly into view.
Repairs to the state's worst bridges and roads are being put off year after year, sometimes for more than a decade, as the transportation agency contends with massive budget shortfalls and aging infrastructure.
Throughout the state, work is being delayed even as accidents, injuries or deaths mount.
Community leaders, legislators in both parties and even officials within MnDOT are questioning whether public safety is at times being compromised because of budget and other economic pressures.
Bob McFarlin, assistant to MnDOT Commissioner Carol Molnau, acknowledged in a recent interview that the state transportation agency has stretched the boundaries of risk as maintenance and repair projects continue to get deferred. Molnau declined requests to be interviewed.
"There are unfunded, unmet needs throughout the state," McFarlin said. "The longer those needs go unmet, the more difficulty it presents for the traveling public. There's no dispute about that."
Delays also are making many projects more expensive. The original price tag for replacing the Hastings Bridge was $55 million in MnDOT's long-range plan for 2005-2025. The current long-range plan -- 2008-2030 -- puts the cost at $98 million.
And a new bridge won't be built for at least another 10 years.
Still, despite what MnDOT inspectors have found for years on the Hastings Bridge, McFarlin said the public should not worry about its flaws.
He said the bridge is safe, and repairs are done as warranted.
There are at least five other high-profile bridges in the state that also have serious deficiencies, records show.
They include the Dresbach Bridge over the Mississippi outside La Crescent; the Stillwater Lift Bridge; and the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul, which has been eyed for replacement for years.
A bridge filled with flaws
The Hastings Bridge is full of rust, visible even from a boat floating 65 feet below. In some places, steel reinforcement bars are exposed to the elements. Protective paint has peeled away in swaths, causing corrosion that has thinned the steel in certain parts.
"It's the talk of the town, this bridge," said Greg Kasel, who owns Downtown Tire & Auto in Hastings. He said he's just one of many who think MnDOT will be wasting its money repairing the bridge next summer when the structure obviously needs to be replaced.
"Any type of repair to the bridge is a Band-Aid," he said. Kasel feels safe enough driving over the bridge, but he finds the two-lane design to be a bottleneck.
"So many people just shake their heads. It was supposed to be replaced by now."
The bridge is also "scour- critical," meaning that floodwaters could undermine its timber piling. According to MnDOT, the only other scour-critical highway bridge in the Twin Cities metro area is the I-694 bridge over the Mississippi.
Instead of using steel supports, timbers were sunk into the river bottom at two locations to hold up the Hastings Bridge. The timbers support the concrete footings that, in turn, support the massive piers visible to motorists and boaters.
Scour -- damage caused by sweeping river currents -- has been an issue with the bridge since at least 1991, records show. But MnDOT said damage so far has been minimal, and the bridge is safe.
An inspection report from 1998 noted holes caused by scour on the upstream ends of two concrete piers. To help protect against scour, MnDOT dumped rock around one of the piers in 2003. A year later, an underwater inspection found the footing was exposed to the river current at one pier.
"We will be reevaluating the scour potential ... and we plan to update the scour action plan some time over the course of this winter," MnDOT spokeswoman Lucy Kender said in an e-mail.
The Star Tribune reviewed the Hastings Bridge inspection reports from 1997 through 2006. The newspaper was denied access to the most recent inspection report, which was completed in August as part of statewide emergency inspections prompted by the collapse of the I-35W bridge.
MnDOT issued a public statement after the August inspection, saying that "no immediate corrective action was needed."
MnDOT said information in the report is protected "because in the wrong hands (criminals or terrorists), the data would provide key information to determine the most vulnerable components of a bridge to target for attack by explosives or other means."
In many cases, inspection reports show that flaws first noted as far back as the mid- to late 1990s have not been addressed, despite inspectors classifying the deficiencies as "severe," "numerous," "extensive" and "excessive."
For example, in 1995 inspectors first noted that a steel floorbeam in one of the main spans had "extensive corrosion, with severe section loss," or thinning. In 1994-1997, inspectors reported a "severe crack above the bearing" in a concrete beam. In 1994, inspectors found rocker bearings "tipped excessively in contraction."
In 2006, inspectors looked at the upper trusses and floorbeams at pier 8 and found extensive corrosion with severe thinning of steel. It had been that way since 1995, MnDOT reports show.
In 1998, inspectors found an exterior plate had cracked in two locations; it was made of "poor-quality steel." Another plate was bolted over it to hold it together. The bridge steel met industry standards in 1950, when the bridge was built, MnDOT said.
Inspectors also noted that the expansion bearings on pier 7 were frozen. They had been that way since 1996.
The bridge's bearings -- which are supposed to allow the structure to move with the thermal expansion and contraction of steel -- are of particular importance, in light of the collapse of the I-35W bridge, another fracture-critical bridge.
MnDOT did not keep the bearings on the I-35W bridge in working order, according to inspection records. Now, federal investigators are probing whether frozen bearings contributed to the collapse.
None of these flaws in the Hastings Bridge has been repaired, MnDOT says, because they are not considered structurally critical. McFarlin said it is not unusual for bridge inspectors to monitor deficiencies over time before fixing them.
According to MnDOT, many of the problems will be addressed in next summer's $2.2 million repair project, which will close one lane of the bridge for about 3½ months.
The job calls for replacement of two roller bearings, new expansion joints and a replacement of the sidewalk.
In addition, the lower portion of the 1,800-foot-long steel superstructure will be painted, and repairs will be made to damaged abutments, piers and steel beams. The painting will help slow corrosion, which has created measurable thinning of steel in spots, MnDOT documents show.
The funding gap
For MnDOT to keep pace with all statewide transportation needs from 2008 to 2030 -- including construction, safety projects, maintenance, and upgrades -- it would cost taxpayers $38.1 billion, according to MnDOT's most recent estimates.
But over that same time period, with current funding policy, MnDOT estimates that it will only have $14.5 billion.
McFarlin said MnDOT's fiscal 2008 budget is short at least $85 million for scheduled construction projects.
Despite the shortfalls, he said MnDOT is fulfilling its mission.
"I think you can't say this mantra enough: Safety in the system is MnDOT's Number One priority,'' McFarlin said. "When there are distinct safety issues on the roadway, they take priority ... and the bridges. We will address safety issues above everything else.''
But Rep. Ron Erhardt of Edina, the highest-ranking Republican on the House Transportation Finance Division, calls the state's infrastructure problems "enormous.''
It has been 25 years since the state has put significant money into the system, Erhardt said. He added that he would not be surprised to find that the agency is diverting money from repairs in order to give the appearance that there's money for new construction.
Erhardt carried a transportation funding bill in 2005, and he supported a similar bipartisan bill earlier this year. But Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed the bills, both of which proposed an increase in the gas tax and called for more than $1 billion in highway bonds.
Pawlenty said the tax and fee increases in the bill were "unnecessary and onerous'' for Minnesotans.
A week after the I-35W bridge collapse, however, he said that during the summer he had talked privately with a few legislators about supporting a gas-tax increase -- but only without raising the overall tax burden.
He and legislators could not reach an agreement on that during a special session convened this fall to address the bridge collapse and flood relief.
"As long as you continue not to supply money, the problem gets worse," Erhardt said.
New bridge on long delay
The Hastings Bridge is also listed by federal highway authorities as functionally obsolete -- meaning its roadway is inadequate for the traffic it carries. And it has a bridge sufficiency rating of 49.1, lower than the 50.0 rating carried by the I-35W bridge before it fell, according to MnDOT.
By 1998, the Hastings Bridge's deteriorating condition forced MnDOT to post a load limit to prevent the heaviest trucks from crossing the already stressed bridge.
MnDOT has postponed replacing the bridge for years, and the agency cannot say when a new bridge will be built. And Molnau said through a spokesperson that the agency might never replace the bridge. In an Oct. 26 e-mail to the Star Tribune, MnDOT said it will "assess the feasibility and prudence of various bridge types that could replace the existing bridge, including a look at the possibility of perpetuating the existing structure."
"It's frustrating," said Hastings City Council Member Danna Elling Schultz. "We're sitting here with a bridge that needs to be replaced, and, instead, we're talking about refurbishing it enough to keep it safe."
Public skepticism in Hastings is so widespread that a grass-roots coalition of residents and businesses has formed to pressure MnDOT to replace the bridge.
In addition to concerns about the condition of the bridge's superstructure, Hastings officials say traffic flow over the two-lane crossing is dangerous.
Until recently, for example, there was no lane divider to separate the north-south traffic, even where the two southbound approach lanes to the bridge narrow to one lane.
That, combined with rapidly changing speed limits from 60 to 40 to 30 miles per hour, has created a hazardous driving zone, said Hastings Police Chief Mike McMenomy. He said that in the past five years, his department has responded to 54 accidents on the bridge, including nine that resulted in injuries.
In February 2007, a 49-year-old Wisconsin woman was killed in a head-on crash as her southbound vehicle approached the single-lane bottleneck just north of the bridge. She was hit by a northbound vehicle after it spun out of control and crossed into her lane.
After that accident, and a second deadly crash days later that happened farther north on Hwy. 61, MnDOT installed median barriers between the lanes. It was a safety measure that local residents had been demanding for years, said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee.
Sieben said her constituents in Hastings, Cottage Grove and Newport are exasperated.
"What I hear from people most is that they are concerned about the safety of it,'' she said. "This bridge can't wait."
"We should get the bridge replaced. We need to do it now,'' said McNamara, the GOP legislator representing Hastings. "If they have something on the list that's higher than the Hastings Bridge in terms of replacement, it must be really bad."
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