Monday: Feud forming over function of new bridge

  • Article by: Curt Brown, Rochelle Olson and Laurie Blake
  • Star Tribune
  • August 14, 2007 - 1:59 PM

A day before the public sees the first sketch of the replacement for the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge, a rift widened Monday between Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak over clashing transportation visions for the new span.

A decision on whether light-rail trains could cross the Mississippi River as part of the project are at the center of the disagreement.

The new bridge's warp-speed construction schedule has Rybak saying he would be willing to stomach a few extra months of traffic congestion to build the best bridge.

Rybak's spokesman, Jeremy Hanson, said Pawlenty told the mayor "due diligence" would be conducted regarding transit options and "the mayor is holding him to his word."

But federal and state officials said the $250 million in federal emergency funding can be used to replace what was there -- a highway bridge.

Pawlenty's spokesman Brian McClung said Monday: "We are willing to listen and we understand their perspective, but the 35W corridor is a vital asset to the Twin Cities and the state and we believe we should move expeditiously to [build] a new bridge."

Also Monday, the anticipated legal battle over the Aug. 1 bridge collapse formally began when lawyers representing the families of two people who died and three who were seriously injured filed a petition in federal court, asking for its own investigators to have access to the ruins by today.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials will release a rough, bird's-eye sketch of the proposed 10-lane bridge at 2 p.m. today and discuss the process they'll use to build it at a media briefing.

Besides requiring 10-lanes -- five each way on two separate structures with express lanes for buses -- MnDOT will accept steel or concrete-and-steel construction, said Khani Sahebjam, MnDOT's metro division engineer.

While many of the design details will be left up to the five firms bidding to land the contract, Rybak hopes the timetable to build a bridge by the end of 2008 won't squander a chance to improve traffic flow into downtown Minneapolis.

"I believe a large number of people want this bridge to symbolize the rebuilding of a community in some way," Rybak told the Associated Press on Monday. "That does not seem to be a significant part of MnDOT's goal at this point."

Rybak's lofty goals for the bridge run counter to the U.S. Department of Transportation's emergency funding rules that authorize only the replacement of an "equivalent" structure. Congress would likely permit additional traffic lanes, but not another mode of transportation, such as light rail.

"It's fair to say we'd run into some stiff opposition," said John Schadl, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

There are other impediments as well. Plans for the Central Corridor light rail line have it crossing the Mississippi River over the Washington Avenue Bridge, which goes through the more heavily-congested University of Minnesota East Bank campus. Some Metropolitan Council and federal officials say the possible realignment over the new I-35W bridge could cause ridership to dwindle.

Rybak's chief of staff, Tina Smith, fired off a letter Monday to Bob Schroeder, Pawlenty's point person on bridge rebuilding. "The mayor wants to be clear that our goal is to ensure that future options for LRT [light-rail transit] in the corridor and over the bridge are protected."

If they are building a bridge for the next 100 years, it should be able to accommodate the needs for the future, she wrote.

Her letter was a response to a letter sent Friday from Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who heads MnDOT, and Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell to Pawlenty saying that including LRT would "cause unacceptable delays in the design and construction of the bridge."

They estimate it would take up to two years of study to determine if an I-35W route would be feasible for the proposed Central Corridor light-rail line between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

"MnDOT believes it would be less expensive to reinforce or rebuild the Washington Avenue bridge, or build a stand-alone LRT river crossing, than to add an LRT component to the I-35W bridge," Molnau and Bell wrote.

Design requirements

The design of the replacement bridge will be intentionally left vague to allow for flexibility for the builder, said Minneapolis Public Works Director Steve Kotke. Ultimately, the state will have five different designs from which to choose, he said.

Design experts said it's an opportunity to think big.

"Rather than just doing another old bridge, it might be nice to have something dramatic and exciting -- and of course the essence of safety," said architect Ralph Rapson.

Judith Martin, director of the urban studies program at the University of Minnesota, said anybody hoping for something grand and fancy should rein in their expectations. Federal highway bridges tend to be "extremely utilitarian" with more attention paid to load bearing ability than design. "Think about all the interstate bridges in the Twin Cities. Are any of them memorable?" she asked.

Competing contractors -- two local teams and three national contractors -- may propose a steel bridge design that is "just beams or it could be a steel box or a concrete box similar to the Wakota Bridge," between South St. Paul and St. Paul Park, Sahebjam said.

The chosen builders may not necessarily be the lowest bidders, Sahebjam said. "The goal is to do it as soon as we can."

Recovery update

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said the weekend rains are "hampering our efforts" with increased current. That has prompted a shift in the recovery strategy from a direct search for the remaining four missing victims to debris removal, which could make recovering victims easier.


The Associated Press and staff writers Bill McAuliffe, Terry Collins, Kevin Diaz and Maria Baca contributed to this report.

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