Minnesota sends money to bridgesMore than 160 Minnesota bridges will be replaced or renovated under a 10-year program announced Monday, with money coming from higher gasoline taxes and other fees lawmakers imposed earlier this year.
By: By Don Davis, State Capitol Bureau, Alexandria Echo Press
ST. PAUL – More than 160 Minnesota bridges will be replaced or renovated under a 10-year program announced Monday, with money coming from higher gasoline taxes and other fees lawmakers imposed earlier this year.
Six Mississippi River bridges and five over the Red River are among those transportation officials said would be built starting no later than 2018.
Eleven major bridge replacements could take up to three-fourths of the $2.5 billion slated for bridge replacements and renovations.
The influx of money comes thanks to increased taxes and fees legislators approved over Governor Tim Pawlenty’s objections. Now, it is up to the Republican governor’s transportation department to spend the money he did not seek.
The emphasis for spending the new funds will be on bridges, new state Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel told a joint House-Senate transportation committee meeting Monday. He said last summer’s collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge into the Mississippi focused attention on bridges and the suspected collapse cause, improperly designed gusset plates that held beams of steel together.
“We all recognize that our world was turned upside down with the inclusion of gusset plates in our world,” Sorel said.
Gusset plate problems have caused other Minnesota bridges to be temporarily or permanently closed in an atmosphere where officials would rather close a bridge than risk another collapse.
With limited money going to transportation improvements for the last two or three decades, Representative Bernie Lieder said, bridges have suffered.
“They have been neglected because of the cost,” said Lieder, a Crookston Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation Finance Committee.
Bridge replacement costs range from $20 million to well over $400 million for the 11 major bridges on the list.
Some legislators said they were concerned money may be used for improvements that don’t make roads safer. To that, Minnesota Department of Transportation planner Tim Henkel replied: “Safety trumps.”
Construction is to begin yet this year on two bridges with safety concerns. One is on Minnesota 23 over the Mississippi in St. Cloud, which was closed permanently earlier this year. Another is over the Red River on Minnesota 11/North Dakota 66, between Grand Forks and the Canadian border, which was temporarily closed when weld problems were discovered on the bridge near Drayton, North Dakota.
The only bridge slated for replacement next year is one on Minnesota 24 in Meeker County. Construction is due to pick up in 2010 and beyond, when several bridges are to be replaced, including the much-discussed Hastings bridge over the Mississippi on U.S. 61.
The 2008 Legislature ordered state transportation officials, then under Commissioner Carol Molnau, to increase bridge replacement and repair spending. To provide money for that and other transportation needs, lawmakers increased the gasoline tax gradually, upped license plate fees, added to car rental costs and boosted the sales tax on motor vehicle leases.
Much of that goes to state bridges, but cities, counties and transit systems also get more money.
The report Sorel gave lawmakers Monday warned that after bridge safety is addressed, “remaining funds will be limited.” It also warned that federal funds state officials count on could fall.
Lieder said he understands a third of federal funds Minnesota now receives could disappear next year.
Sorel’s report listed 40 state bridges in the worst condition. Construction on replacements is due to begin by 2018.
Another 120 bridges fell into the second-worst category, with about 22 expected to be replaced. Others will be renovated, but transportation officials said decisions on many of those second-tier bridges have yet to be made.
The most expensive of the 11 major bridge replacements is one estimated to cost Minnesota up to $440 million, with Wisconsin also paying, over the St. Croix River at Stillwater. It is due for construction in 2013.
Mississippi bridges scheduled for replacement include those at Red Wing, Hastings, St. Cloud, Dresbach, St. Paul and Winona.
Besides the two-lane Drayton bridge, the Kennedy bridge over the Red River in Grand Forks also is a priority. It is due for construction in 2018. Also in Grand Forks, the U.S. 2B bridge is to be replaced after 2013. The Minnesota 1 bridge north of Grand Forks and the Minnesota 317 bridge north of that are due to be replaced after 2013.
Transportation officials plan meetings in the next few weeks to discuss their spending plan. The closest one to Alexandria will take place at the West Central Initiative in Fergus Falls at 12:30 p.m. on July 21.