Rising Again

>EDITOR’S NOTE:

As we approach the six-month anniversary of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, we look ahead to the future – time to be filled with continued recuperation, reconstruction and reflection.

In the next six months, businesses will face considerable difficulty. Lawmakers will argue over how to effectively rectify the fallen thoroughfare. Surrounding communities will adapt to detours and disturbances.

Meanwhile, a new bridge will begin to take shape. The face of our city will be scarred, but life will go on, just as it did prior to Aug. 1.

The day the bridge fell and killed 13 commuters, brought countless international media outlets to our doorsteps, unified communities and divided politicians will fade into memory.

But today, as we prepare for tomorrow, the six-month anniversary of the collapse, we contemplate that landmark local catastrophe and where we now stand because of it.

-Karlee Weinmann

BRIDGE GOES UP, INVESTIGATION GOES ON

Six months ago, the portion of Interstate 35W running below Washington Avenue was a vital corridor for one of the busiest bridges in Minnesota. Today, the same stretch of roadway is still critical – not because of the traffic it’s carrying, but because of what’s taking shape there.

Now, little more than 100 days into the construction process, teams of workers have transformed the stretch of I-35W just north of where the old bridge stood into one of the largest outdoor assembly plants in the state.

The “casting yard,” as it’s formally called, now occupies almost a quarter-mile stretch from near the area where the old bridge stood to several hundred feet past what was the Washington Avenue exit.

MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said roughly 60 to 70 people regularly work on the entire construction site, spanning both sides of the river, usually for six days each week. Given the expedited timeframe for the new bridge’s construction, most are working 60 hours per week.

“It’s like finals week, every week,” Gutknecht said about the long shifts. Because of current weather conditions, workers are using makeshift plastic tents to cover their work areas, and compact heaters and heated trailers to keep warm.

The cold weather even takes a toll on the concrete, which has to be heated to at least 40 degrees in order to cure properly.

“All the work to this point has been (mostly) underground, way underground. And now, we’re starting to build up,” Gutknecht said late this month.

Bob Edwards, assistant project manager for Flatiron-Manson, the construction team heading up the project, said the biggest challenge facing the crews “is just keeping on schedule,” particularly in such harsh weather conditions. So far, the project schedule remains relatively unaffected by snow or cold, Gutknecht said.

From now until mid-spring, Gutknecht said, the casting yard is expected to produce 120 precast segments – essentially all of the individual concrete sections of the bridge that will later be connected with steel cables .

“So even though this is a concrete bridge, there’s hundreds of thousands of pounds of steel in there,” Gutknecht said.

Beginning sometime around March, the construction of the new bridge’s superstructure will begin.

And come this October, the actual bridge structure will be all but finished – minus the roadway or “deck,” lighting, railings and some other basic detailing. The grand opening for the new bridge is scheduled for Dec. 24 .

Early on, MnDOT warned pile driving and other preparation work could be audible for significant distances around the construction site.

While noise appears to have been less of an issue than initially thought, Gutknecht said some West Bank residents had concerns about another aspect of the project: the glow from bright lights on the site emanating into their apartments.

The closure of a section of West River Road continues to inconvenience area residents as well, but don’t expect it to open up anytime soon, Gutknecht said.

“We’re not going to open the West River Road until it’s safe. That probably means until construction’s complete,” he said, adding that the risk of debris falling during construction was worth taking the extra precaution.

BRIDGE DESIGN

The main difference between the old bridge and the new St. Anthony Falls Bridge is the use of concrete as the major construction component .

As for the size of the replacement bridge, “we’re building it in essentially the same footprint,” Gutknecht said, “just a little wider.”

When finished, the St. Anthony Falls Bridge will technically be two separate bridges, one carrying five northbound lanes and the other carrying five southbound lanes, with an eight-foot gap in between “so we can do inspections,” Gutknecht said.

Because of the mostly concrete design, the new bridge will not contain gusset plates, the component the National Transportation Safety Board reported were “roughly half the thickness required” in the fallen bridge.

Investigations

Half a year after the initial collapse, the cause of the bridge’s failure is still under investigation. While the preliminary findings of the NTSB, which is conducting the investigation at the federal level, were released Jan. 15, not everyone was satisfied with the early disclosure of information.

Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, whose district includes the University campus, said he’s concerned about what he called “leakages of information.”

Pogemiller said in the early days after the collapse, he was given assurances by NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker that the investigation would be handled in a “professional” manner and that information would only be released in the form of a comprehensive report after the investigation was complete.

When the NTSB announced it would release its initial findings in January, “everybody was stunned,” Pogemiller said. “Oberstar was stunned,” he added. Congressman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Washington and released a public letter criticizing Rosenker just days after the Daily spoke with Pogemiller.

“I would say there’s a lot of concern about the NTSB right now,” Pogemiller said, adding that even if there was a major design flaw with the gusset plates, it remains a mystery why it took close to 40 years for the bridge to fail.

“I don’t think we know why that bridge fell” at this point, he said.

Regarding the NTSB’s initial findings, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he was glad to have information brought forward “as quickly as possible” but went on to say he disagreed with the way Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty paraphrased the report.

“The governor communicated that the NTSB said the design flaw was the primary reason for the collapse, but the NTSB told me it was a factor Ö they still hadn’t determined why the bridge collapsed on that day,” Rybak said.

According to a statement released by the governor the same day the NTSB’s report came out, “The NTSB clearly stated today the original design flaw was unrelated to subsequent inspections or maintenance of the bridge.”

Pawlenty spokesman Alex Carey said later, “We want to address the matter in a fair and factual and non-political matter.”

At the state level, Illinois-based contractor Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., is conducting a separate investigation of the collapse.

Other than state and federal investigations of the physical bridge structure, several other entities are looking into the circumstances surrounding the collapse.

In the weeks following the collapse, a bipartisan committee of eight state senators and eight state representatives was formed to investigate MnDOT’s practices and response to the bridge disaster. Legislative auditor James Nobles is conducting a similar inquiry.

“We’re taking a broad look at MnDOT and its maintenance practices,” Nobles said, “We are not examining the collapse of the I-35W bridge per se Ö It’s much broader than that particular bridge.”

Nobles said he anticipates his report will be released the week of Feb. 18.

Jake Grovum contributed to this story.

BRIDGE COLLAPSE CLASS LOOKED ‘BEYOND THE HEADLINES’

When the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed, victims, witnesses and government officials alike were left with one question: now what?

For one research associate and a group of students at the University, that question became the driving force behind a fall semester course: “The River, The Bridge, The Community: Beyond the headlines of the I-35W bridge collapse .”

Pat Nunnally, coordinator of the River Life Program at the Institute on the Environment, taught the class through the urban studies department.

Through the class, Nunnally asked students to explore effects of the collapse that were less-reported, and focus on issues that will be felt for years to come.

“(I) really asked them to think, ‘OK, in 10 years, when you come back to this site, what kinds of stories are there to be told?’ ” he said. “What are some things, long-term, that we need to be thinking about?”

One project focused on the environmental aspects of the new bridge design, Nunnally said, and another looked at the effects of the collapse on the nearby Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

“The kinds of issues that got raised there don’t go away just because the front page is not looking at it anymore,” he said.

Despite the heavy, international media coverage brought to the area after the collapse, Nunnally said the public’s attention span is short with events like this.

“Once the new bridge goes up, there will be a lot of attention,” he said. “But after that, it’ll be noted around anniversaries of the collapse, for a while.”

“Shoot, they don’t even have big ceremonies now on 9/11,” Nunnally added.

A more recent effect of the collapse is the prominence of transportation funding over survivor stories in news coverage.

Director of the urban studies department Judith Martin said the fact that funding for infrastructure has been lacking for a long time made for “a teachable moment.”

“This isn’t just a flash in the pan,” she said of the issues raised in discussions on transportation funding.

“Those policy questions inevitably lead to budget questions then political questions,” Martin said, “but it is a policy issue first.”

The class was not focused on politics, Martin said, but those issues came up when Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke at a lecture series associated with the class.

“It was a good time for me to stand back from this horrific disaster and think about the lessons that were learned,” Rybak said. “When you invest in quality government you get quality results, and when you don’t invest there are consequences.”

Rybak noted that the class served as an effective forum to analyze the bridge collapse.

“The University is extremely important in this region,” he said. “It’s a place where you can bring everyday actions and elevate them to see their broader implications.”

Aside from focusing attention on long-term ramifications, Ann Waltner, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, said the collapse offered another element to the institute’s project, Telling River Stories, which examines the effects of the Mississippi River on the surrounding community.

“The river was there before the bridge and the river will be there after the bridge,” she said. “One of the things that (Nunnally) was interested in doing with the course was really taking another look at the river.”

Waltner said another area of interest for Nunnally was talking to people affected by the collapse, but not necessarily the victims.

“This was such a sharp moment, a sharp break where people had very dramatic stories to tell,” she said. “Ordinary people who saw it or whose daily life was impacted by it.”

BUSINESSES SUFFER AFTER THE COLLAPSE

David Lawrance’s business, Paradise Charter Cruises , which offers sightseeing excursions and special event cruises on the Mississippi River, was out of commission for two and a half months following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. Even so, he said it could have been much worse.

“We’d be in a much different situation had that boat gone through eight minutes ahead,” he said. “It would have been underneath the bridge.”

Post-collapse, Paradise Charter Cruises didn’t have access to the river during much of its normal operating season, hindering the business’ success.

“It was really a hit for us,” Lawrance said. “We’re doing all we can to get back on top of our game.”

Bob Lind, the director of small business financing for the city of Minneapoli s, said the city surveyed 60 area businesses in the weeks following the collapse. Those businesses lost a total of about $13,000 in revenue per day.

To assist the affected businesses, Lind said Minneapolis has tried to help by informing their owners about available loans and directing customers back to areas where traffic has slowed in the collapse’s aftermath.

However, Lawrance said the city has not offered him any assistance.

Northeast businesses

Many stores and restaurants in Northeast Minneapolis have also seen a drop in business since the collapse. Fewer people are driving to and through the area.

Ed Hilbrich said he is planning on closing Opposable Thumbs Books , his Johnson Street business.

Hilbrich said Minneapolis officials have done “absolutely nothing” to help the affected businesses. It took the city months to put up signs to direct people toward Johnson Street, he said.

Mary Colón owns Audubon Coffee on Johnson Street. She said business is down by about 30 percent across her neighborhood, Audubon Park. She too said the city and state officials have been useless.

Affected businesses are working together to raise money for group advertising, she said. The goal is to get people back in the neighborhood to shop locally.

“We’re trying to do fundraisers,” she said. “None of us have a nickel to advertise.”

Colón said another goal is to push the city to approach the state and federal government about tax cuts for small businesses.

Both Colón and Hilbrich said the lagging economy has played a role in the problems facing small businesses. However, Colón said, the situation is worse because it’s now inconvenient to get to Audubon Park.

“We are what gives character and color to our community,” Colón said. “We’re not asking for charity.”

Ward 1 Councilman Paul Ostrow, whose ward includes Audubon Park, said he understands the economic problems the collapse has caused for small businesses. “They’re more than just neighborhood places,” he said. “People did come from elsewhere.”

Ostrow said he has tried to encourage people to return to the affected businesses by getting the signs put up and flyers distributed.

But it would take a change in state law to lower property taxes for small businesses.

Small Business Administration

Disaster relief loans for businesses affected by the bridge collapse are available through the Small Business Administration. These federal loans have an interest rate of 4 percent.

SBA Spokesman Carl Sherrill said the loans are only available to businesses that can show they were economically damaged by the collapse. Businesses must also demonstrate an ability to pay back the loan.

Sherrill said the SBA has received seven completed applications for the loans, but only one has been approved.

Harry’s Food and Cocktails , which opened near the bridge two weeks before it collapsed, received a $130,000 loan from the SBA, owner Dwight Bonewell said.

John Gifford, owner of Dunn Bros Coffee at 530 University Ave. S.E., said he is in the process of reapplying for the SBA loans.

The first time around, he was told his loan was not approved because of an “inability to meet repayments,” he said.

Although business initially increased at Dunn Bros after the collapse, Gifford said onlookers disappeared after two or three weeks. His morning crowd, which consisted mostly of people who used the I-35W, has almost disappeared.

Gifford also said his company has borrowed money in the past to purchase businesses. The fact that he already has debt could factor into whether his loan is approved.

Ostrow said the SBA loans would be useful for larger businesses that have the financial backing to make repayments, but small businesses are usually already in debt.

SBA loans haven’t worked well or been a good fit for small businesses, he said. No loan would be enough to help some small businesses.

More woes in Marcy-Holmes

Less than two weeks after the collapse, a fire forced Debbie Allen to close Gopher Cleaners, which was located at 811 Fourth St. S.E. She said she is sure that the bridge collapse caused the fire.

Although no one from the fire department would say the collapse played a role, Allen said she was told faulty wires started the fire. Immediately after the collapse, Gopher Cleaners began experiencing electrical problems, such as temporary power outages.

Allen believes electrical wires were knocked loose by the collapse, which shook the building.

“I was seriously affected by it,” she said.

Dinkytown still trafficked

Not all businesses near the University have suffered as a result of the collapse.

Skott Johnson, president of the Dinkytown Business Association, said most Dinkytown businesses have not struggled.

“A great deal of our customers are right here – students and faculty who come here every day,” he said.

WHAT ARE OFFICIALS SAYING ABOUT FUNDING?

As a structure, the new Interstate 35W bridge will be funded by the federal government – $373 million has been awarded to the state so far, both from emergency funds and spending bills.

Washington will cover a “serviceable, surface transportation bridge that carries cars, that’s what they can replace it with,” John Schadl, spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., said. “They can’t get federal money to put a Ferris wheel on it.”

While there are no Ferris wheels in the works, there could be other “enhancements” tacked on, which would not be covered federally, such as a light-rail or bus line.

“I don’t think the solid number is out there because, of course, the contract is heavily weighted for speedy completion,” Sen. D. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said. There could be some unforeseen costs as construction moves along and expenses get added, or more hours have to be worked.

So while the bridge moves forward, with somewhere between 90 and 100 percent of it funded federally, discussion remains as to whether the state may need to set aside money, not only for unforeseen costs associated with I-35W, but for bridges and roads in disrepair across the state.

University President Bob Bruininks:

Funds need to be allocated specifically to transportation, not coming out of the state’s capital budget. “We shouldn’t pit transportation against other needs,” Bruininks said.

These needs include spending money on education and updating buildings and classrooms, as well as other projects around the state – funding state parks and buildings like convention centers, steel plants and correctional facilities, which all get their money from the capital request.

Gas Tax?

“It just won’t kill us to raise the gas tax 7 cents,” Bruininks said. “Minnesota is substantially behind other states. Wisconsin is at least 12 cents higher.”

State Senator D. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis:

“We literally need to double what we spend on roads and transit,” he said. “We’ve got huge, huge needs that are being totally unmet and there’s an entire list of projects that we’ve got. The list is long and we keep delaying and delaying and delaying these projects.”

Gas Tax?

“You bet I strongly support making those investments: raising additional revenues through the gas tax, through a metro-wide sales tax for transit, the way every other metropolitan area in our country does.”

Lee Munnich, a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and director of its state and local policy program, with expertise in transportation policy:

“The only real choices in the short term are using a gas tax or using funds out of the capital budget.”

To skeptics of a gas tax, Munnich cautioned, “Anything you add to the capital budget has to be paid back eventually too.”

State Senator Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing:

“Without a well thought-out, well-funded, comprehensive (transportation) plan, we’re not going to be able to do the amount of work necessary to keep Minnesotans as reasonably safe as possible on our roads.”

Gas Tax?

“What we intend on doing, at least in the senate bill, is to increase the gas tax.”

Murphy added that any sort of increased spending could be just what Minnesota needs economically. “For every dollar you spend on road construction, it gets spent seven more times in our communities and that’s one way of jumpstarting the economy.”

State Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina:

Gas Tax?

“We need a gas tax increase because there are other bridges besides this one that are falling down, just about. The Hastings bridge, the Lafayette bridge, are all in very, very poor condition and we don’t just magically create the money. We have to get that money from tax dollars.”

Erhardt also calculated the tax could be raised marginally and still have a wide impact. “For every penny we raise it, that’s about 32 million dollars a year.”

He calculated if the tax was raised a nickel, $160 million would be raised. That’s enough to fund nearly 40 percent of the state’s portion of annual transportation spending.

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL):”I don’t think we have to focus just on this bridge. We can focus on the fact that we have a big deficit in bridge maintenance, rebuilding, and so forth.”

Gas Tax?

“You don’t want to starve your maintenance and your general transportation budget which is already starved,” Kahn said. She said she will support the highest gas tax that is proposed (probably 10 cents).

“The house is only 2 or 3 votes away from being able to override the governor’s veto, which doesn’t mean they’ll have to do that. Hopefully enough republicans will tell the governor that they’re going to vote to override so that we’ll get a bill passed and he won’t veto it.”

*Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office did not return repeated requests for comment.