While the state is hoping to build a replacement for the Interstate 35W bridge by the end of next year, a major bridge in St. Paul that had been deemed more worrisome and that came close to collapse before is not scheduled for replacement until 2011.

The Lafayette Bridge, a part of Hwy. 52 that carries 81,000 vehicles a day and spans the Mississippi River near downtown St. Paul, is the state's most-traveled bridge with troubles similar to the I-35W bridge.

Like that bridge, the Lafayette is "fracture-critical," meaning that if one part fails the whole bridge could fall. It also is considered structurally deficient and has a sufficiency rating just under what the I-35W span was rated.

The bridge's history includes a temporary shutdown in 1975 -- less than a decade after it opened in 1968 -- when a crack "large enough to put your arm into" was discovered in the bridge's main beam after someone noticed a 7-inch dip in the roadway, according to a newspaper report. That fracture in the southbound lane nearly resulted "in [the] collapse of the bridge," a 2006 inspection report noted. The damaged component was jacked back into place and reinforced with bolted plates, the report said.

"That's a bridge we've been watching for a number of years," said Department of Transportation spokesman Kent Barnard. He added that its condition is "nothing ominous, nothing threatening."

Experience with the bridge

"I drive across it probably two to three times a week myself, and I don't even stop and think about it," Barnard said.

Mike Legato does.

Legato, a St. Paul construction worker, says there are times, when traffic is especially heavy and cars are bumper to bumper, that he can feel the bridge rattle and shake on his daily commute.

"When you're stopped, you really feel it," he said.

He said he wasn't surprised to hear that the bridge has an even lower sufficiency rating than the collapsed I-35W span or that a replacement isn't planned for a number of years.

"The feds gotta answer to it. We talk a lot about it at work," Legato said. "They've got a system in place that they ignore."

The Minnesota Department of Transportation's Metropolitan District engineer, Khani Sahebjam, said Tuesday he knew of no plans to accelerate the timetable for reconstruction, but he acknowledged that priorities could change.

"Of course it's all tied to possible future funding," Sahebjam said. "Right now, with this situation, the focus is on bridges, so maybe bridges will be done sooner."

Bridges vibrate and are designed to, he added.

St. Paul City Engineer John Maczko was asked if the I-35W collapse will make planners less willing to wait for the Lafayette's replacement.

"I hope it has," he said. "I would think that this has shaken them [MnDOT] to the bone."

Concerns raised in 2006

A 2006 inspection report found a number of concerns about the bridge.

The inspectors recommended several maintenance procedures such as cleaning, lubricating and painting hinges, repairing eight loose or broken lateral bracing hanger bars, and removing "stool" concrete, which they called a "severe safety concern" after people complained about falling concrete. The report said the bridge should be replaced in eight years. Sahebjam said that the department is starting earlier than that.

At 3,366 feet long, with a main span of 362 feet, the bridge not only is a main artery into the city, it crosses over several city streets, including Kellogg Boulevard and Warner Road as well as parking lots, loading docks, a barge terminal and a railroad. Its sufficiency rating is 49.5 as of June; the I-35W bridge into Minneapolis had a rating of 50 in June 2006.

Kathy Lantry, president of the St. Paul City Council, said the bridge's replacement has been a priority for the city for a "very long time."We have been pushing this bridge," she said. "And I'm not sure what else we can do, other than now we have a tragedy to point to and say, 'If you don't reinvest in your infrastructure, here's what happens.' "

However, Maczko said it could be a mistake to rush into replacement work because of the tricky design questions involved. For example, the bridge's north approach into downtown requires cars to slow significantly to exit to I-94 and I-35E. Two or three cars have run into the Savoy Restaurant across the street from the approach, he said, forcing the city to install a concrete wall there to protect the building.

Questions about exit ramp design and changing the bridge's alignment need to be considered in designing a new span, Maczko said.

"Those are the things you don't want glossed over in the hurry to replace the bridge," he said.

For Yahkeem Glover, who crosses the Lafayette Bridge twice a day on his way to and from his job detailing cars in Bloomington, the bridge's condition is cause for worry -- and fatalism.

"Until now, I didn't really think about that bridge," he said. "It's not as high up off the ground as some, and it doesn't seem to shake as much as others I've gone over. But it's definitely going to make me think more.

Then, after a pause, he said: "But I don't really have an alternative."

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