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I-35W bridge growing together

MINNEAPOLIS - North and south ends of the new Interstate 35W bridge rapidly grow toward each other over the Mississippi River.

The keystone in the middle of the new span should be put in place less than a year after the old 35W bridge collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145 others.

"The bridge is going to look pretty much complete," Project Manager Jon Chiglo of the Minnesota Department of Transportation said about the Aug. 1 collapse anniversary date.

It is the most-watched bridge construction project in the country, and some important eyes were looking at the work on Tuesday. State House and Senate transportation committee members toured the construction site, and most left impressed with the speed, quality and safety of the work.

"They have done a nice job," Rep. Bernie Lieder, DFL-Crookston, said. "It's getting national attention."

Lieder is House transportation finance chairman and a former county engineer. He said transportation trade publications feature the accelerated bridge work.

His Senate counterpart, Steve Murphy of Red Wing, said Flatiron-Manson, general contractor for the bridge, knows it is being watched closely so despite moving at a break-neck pace, safety and quality are being incorporated into construction.

A bonus of up to $27 million awaits Flatiron-Manson if it finishes the bridge before a Dec. 24 deadline. Chiglo said on Tuesday it appears the bridge will be finished between mid-September and mid-October.

The bridge deck should be completed next month, he said, although lots of hidden work such as running electric wiring and installing drainage provisions will remain before motorists can use it.

About 550 construction workers are on site around the clock, Chiglo said, down from a peak of 600.

On Tuesday, the main event for legislator-spectators was watching a barge-based crane lift one of 120 precast segments of the bridge into place.

The segments are attached via adhesive and cables to spans moving toward the center of the river from the north and south sides. Tuesday's gap between the two spans was 250 feet.

As each span grows, the tension of massive cables keeps them suspended above the Mississippi.

Legislators stood on a nearby bridge watching construction for more than 90 minutes.

Some wonder if Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants the bridge open for the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in early September. But Chiglo said no convention will force him to open the bridge before it is done.

A MnDOT study conducted when gasoline prices were lower showed the state loses more than $400,000 a day that the bridge is closed. That is why Pawlenty's administration put on an early-completion bonus.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, wondered about the bonus. "That's a lot of money."

He said little of the $400,000 daily expense is being felt by his northwestern Minnesota constituents, leading him to question the need for a bonus.

But Murphy, another Democrat, said the bridge is key to transportation in the state. It also hurts the state economy, which hurts everyone, he added.

And, Murphy said, there is something else: "When you have a bridge fall down in your state, it does something for your ego."

While legislators praised MnDOT at the construction site, they were more critical in a committee meeting later.

The meeting was scheduled to allow MnDOT officials to respond to a legislative-commissioned report that recommended several changes, including more transportation funding, to avoid future bridge problems.

Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel wrote a letter of response saying that funding was not an issue in the bridge collapse. A federal investigation hints that improperly designed gusset plates holding bridge beams together could be the collapse's cause.

"Those decisions on priorities were, of course, made without knowledge of the fatal design flaw present in the I-35W bridge's gusset plates," Sorel wrote.

MnDOT officials said many changes already have been made, including trying to recruit more engineers for the department. They told the House-Senate committee that they agreed with at least some of the legislative recommendations.

"This is an opportunity," Sen. Kathy Saltzman, DFL-Woodbury, told MnDOT leaders. "It is not a witch hunt."

Earlier, Saltzman said she was happy with progress of the 35W bridge, but knowing that MnDOT can work quickly, she wondered why it could not finish other bridges on time.

The Wakota Bridge, which spans the Mississippi near her district, is a prime example, she said. Completion of a new bridge has been delayed for years because of design problems.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.