August 6, 2007

Clean-Up, Traffic Snarl To Start This Week

Minneapolis will take its first tentative steps this week towards normal business after the collapse of the St. Anthony Bridge last week. The city will work with the NTSB to clear the debris of the collapse from the Mississippi River, while MnDOT will open the last of the operable exits of the I-35W on either end of the collapse:

Recovery crews using cranes and barges will start pulling cars and other vehicles from the Mississippi River by midweek as part of a $15 million debris-removal plan, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials said Sunday.

Meanwhile, the FBI's dive team soon will arrive in the Twin Cities to assist local divers who have been searching for bodies. As of Sunday night, divers had searched several submerged vehicles but had not recovered any bodies in the water.

Workers from Carl Bolander and Sons, of St. Paul, will begin moving heavy equipment to the Interstate 35W collapse site today. They expect to use at least four cranes and possibly two barges to clear the debris, a process that could take months because of the ongoing investigation.

The NTSB will need to inspect each piece of debris as Bolander hauls it onto the barge, noting its location in the debris field and presumably cataloguing it in some manner. This will keep the process slow and deliberate. It will also impact the rebuilding schedule, as no work on a replacement bridge can take place until the debris field gets completely cleared.

MnDOT wants to tackle the rebuilding project immediately -- but they may have some issues even apart from the clean-up. They stated yesterday that this project may cause them to delay other projects around the state as well as shift funds away from them. The $250 million in federal dollars for the rebuild did not get addressed in this analysis, but the first off-the-cuff estimates for replacement were around $400 million, leaving MnDOT $150 million to contribute from state funds.

Taking a page from California's recovery after the Northridge earthquake, MnDOT says they will want to offer an incentive-based contract to the builder to expedite the bridge's replacement. They calculated that they could finish the project by the end of next year, but that financial incentives could speed the process even further. The legislature appeared less than thrilled with MnDOT's speed in working towards a mid-September contract assignment, however. DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller warned MnDOT to wait for direction from the legislature before "narrowing things down," a strange request considering that this is MnDOT's entire reason for existing at all.

Meanwhile, traffic is expected to return to pre-collapse levels, which will start testing the patience of area residents:

Will free bus rides, a temporary freeway and the reopening of two closed sections of Interstate 35W help smooth the way into downtown Minneapolis this morning?

Today's commuting times will begin to answer that question. ... The I-35W bridge collapse severed a major artery for the 520,000 daily trips in and out of downtown. Cars and trucks make up almost three-quarters of those trips.

It will only get worse. The University of Minnesota has one of the largest campuses in the US, and it surrounds the area of the bridge collapse. Many students, such as my son, live nearby and do not need to use the detours, but they will find a much higher level of street traffic when school starts in four weeks. That will provide the acid test for traffic management in Minneapolis, and given the traffic performance in road construction areas, we can expect a lot of frustration and delay.

The city wants to expand the use of buses, and they have started to offer some park-and-ride services for free in the collapse area. This makes sense as a stop-gap measure, but it will be interesting to see if anyone takes advantage of it. It could be more efficient overall but less so on an individual basis.

One change that the University could make would be to offer classes at lower-traffic times. Like most schools, they offer the bulk of their classes during business hours. They could change that to offer more classes at night, or on weekends. A significant change in their schedule could have a beneficial impact on traffic, lowering frustrations not just for businesses but also for students and professors. Have they considered it? Not so far as anyone has announced, but it's worth a look.

The best solution is to replace the bridge as quickly as possible. Hopefully, MnDOT does not have to deal with an inordinate amount of political interference to achieve that goal.


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Comments (10)

Posted by starfleet_dude | August 6, 2007 8:30 AM

The upcoming special session of the Minnesota legislature will have to deal with the issue of funding transportation improvement projects already scheduled while adding at least $150 million for the replacement of the 35W bridge:

I-35W bridge reconstruction could delay other projects - by Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
Officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation say reconstruction of the I-35W bridge may force delay of other road projects. That assessment is frustrating some lawmakers who say the bridge collapse should be a wake-up call for greater investment in the state's roads and bridges.

IMO, a rise of 15 cents a gallon in the gas tax is what'll be necessary to handle the cost of a new 35W bridge and keep pace with other transportation needs in the state.

Posted by Les Nessman | August 6, 2007 8:35 AM

" DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller warned MnDOT to wait for direction from the legislature before "narrowing things down," a strange request considering that this is MnDOT's entire reason for existing at all. "

Oh, good. Sounds like all the political armchair-civil engineers are going to want to have a hand in designing and building the new bridge.

Nothing builds confidence like a bridge built by politicians. Triple the cost, triple the time, political sniping and photo-ops thru the whole process. Yay!

Posted by starfleet_dude | August 6, 2007 8:48 AM

When you building something that's going to be in place for another 60 years or so, a delay of a few weeks to design a bridge that better meets future needs is probably worth it.

Posted by Sean | August 6, 2007 9:34 AM

Night and weekend classes? You must be joking. Contracts, staffing concerns, widespread student rioting aside, the logistics would be impossible. Why don't we just tell 60,000 downtown workers that they have to go to work nights and weekends? That makes just as much sense.

Posted by Christoph | August 6, 2007 10:56 AM

Why would there be any political interference to achieve the goal of replacing the bridge?

Surely the entire state would be united behind that goal?

Posted by MarkW | August 6, 2007 12:09 PM

No matter what the issue, a liberal will find it an excuse for raising taxes. Preferably taxes that other people will be paying.

Posted by AmendmentX | August 6, 2007 12:54 PM

Starfleet_dude- We do not need even a farthing gas tax increase. With a $2,000,000,000 surplus, there is plenty of money around. Plenty! Or eliminate ethanol subsidies (after all, ethanol plants are making money hand-over-fist). Or cut all programs say 1% and presto! Money for the bridge.
And for the rest of us who live on planet earth, Sen Pogemiller's suggestion that the Legislature be involved: well, involved how? I've watched the Senate debate bills. I been at Committee hearings and listened to what senators and representatives propose for laws. All were very harrowing experiences. And to let these people who don't know the difference between a truss, a trust or a tinkertoy get involved in bridge design? Only a lefty could believe and embrace that government is there to or can help. The best thing the legislature can do is get out of the way and let the adults be in charge.

Posted by Jack Oke | August 6, 2007 1:17 PM

If the main problem is going to be traffic into and out of downtown, why not encourage telecommuting and staggered office hours, with perhaps a tax incentive for those businesses participating? The biggest problem is peak traffic - spreading it out may not eliminate the problem, but it can lessen the impact.

BTW. I'll bet the typical office has folks who would prefer something other than 8-5 anyway. My office of system developers had folks arriving anywhere from 6:30AM to noon.

Posted by Eric | August 6, 2007 1:20 PM

I don't get what all the fuss over 35 W feeding the University of Minnesota is about. The Washington Avenue Bridge is far fare more important, not just for pedestrians, but for vehicles. Coming from the south it makes more sense to take the Washington Avenue bridge to get to parking on campus.

The impact on the traffic to the U of M is pretty much only a problem for those who don't know how to get around well.

Posted by Ray | August 6, 2007 1:25 PM

"MO, a rise of 15 cents a gallon in the gas tax is what'll be necessary to handle the cost of a new 35W bridge and keep pace with other transportation needs in the state."

We have a two billion dollar surplus fund to handle financial emergencies like the costs incurred in the unexpected replacement of a major bridge so a tax increase would not have any effect on this matter whatsoever. Part of that fund could be used to increase inspections statewide without having to raise taxes. The fund was designed just for these emergency expenditures and both the Governor and the Legislature would be fools to ignore that as a source of revenue.

As for increased funding of future road maintenance, that's something the Legislature will need to address but I can tell you that the public will be hard pressed to accept any tax increases, especially a gas tax as that would have a detrimental effect on everyone and would negatively effect the state's economy.

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