August 13, 2007

Fast Track On Replacement Bridge

Minnesota's MnDOT has already decided on a conceptual bridge design and will attempt to fast-track the replacement for the St. Anthony Bridge. Rather than go through the normal process of vetting designs and then contracting for the construction, the bridge will be designed and built almost simultaneously -- leading some to wonder if the state may be rushing a little too fast:

Little is known about the next Interstate Hwy. 35W bridge, but what officials do know is that the new span over the Mississippi River will go up fast.

Real fast.

An official told the Associated Press today that a preliminary design already has been selected, but would not give details. ...

Under a more routine construction timeline, Beckel said, design work -- drawing up and reviewing plans, pulling permits and talking with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep them abreast of developments -- would take about a year to complete.

By fast-tracking and embracing a construction strategy called "design-build," the state will try to save time up front by choosing one contractor to oversee both designing and building the bridge.

The need for speed is obvious to those who live here. The collapse cut off the major traffic artery to most of Minneapolis, and the resultant overflow on other routes will create extraordinary traffic jams. The small businesses in the area could lose significant revenue as people avoid the area as much as possible, leading to significant economic damage and unemployment. The start of classes at the University of Minnesota will put much more pressure on traffic detours after Labor Day.

However, drivers in this area want to be assured that the bridge will be built to last, especially after this collapse. Designs will get questioned, and curtailing the selection process may be the least of the issues with the rush. The Star-Tribune notes that worker fatigue could create problems in the construction, but coordinating all of the concurrent efforts needed to build that quickly might be even more of an issue on a tight project deadline.

In California, expedited construction schedules matched with incentives for early completion helped rebuild damaged overpasses and freeways after earthquakes, both faster and better than most other road projects in the state. Those designs didn't take into account the need to span the Mississippi, though, and used fairly standard overpass designs. The design and plans will be released for public comment tomorrow, and that will give us the first look at how Minnesota plans to accomplish a very ambitious project.

We do have one simplification already. The state will not incorporate light rail into the design, as federal rules on emergency funds prohibit it:

Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau and Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell have advised the state that the new I-35W bridge won't include light rail because of emergency federal funding rules.

At a briefing this afternoon, Lucy Kender, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said a preliminary sketch of the new bridge will be released Tuesday. A joint House and Senate committee will hold hearings on the new span Wednesday. ...

Kender said that Molnau, who serves at transportation commissioner, and Bell have sent a letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty saying that light rail does not qualify for $250 million of federal money earmarked for the new bridge.

Good. Let's focus on replacing the highway rather than playing with more mass-transit options that people simply won't use enough to justify the expense.


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Comments (11)

Posted by Eric | August 13, 2007 5:37 PM

A light rail accommodation made a bit of sense actually. Not for a path going northeast along 35W, but rather linking to the Central Corridor linking the two major downtowns.

The current plans for the Central Corridor involve a tunnel through the heart of the U of M campus, and then somehow squeezing onto the Washington Avenue bridge.

Or instead of routing it through the heart of the campus, route light rail along the northern edge down University Avenue all the way to 35W, and then have it follow 35W to the Hiawatha line.

Let me tell you, digging the tunnel through the campus, and then either building a new Washington Avenue bridge to accommodate light rail, or afixing the rail to the existing bridge, will be immensely expensive. IF we are going to get light rail between the two downtowns, and it appears like it is assured to happen, it makes sense to try and get it done more cheaply and having it take the 35W bridge now that it is being rebuilt makes great sense.

But federal rules don't allow a common sense cost cutting synergy.

Posted by Alex | August 13, 2007 5:48 PM


Light rail is a waste of money period. It can't move commerce and is not flexible because it can only go on tracks so it can't change due to demand to a particular route.

The libs here are screaming that if we had only raised taxes that this tragedy could have been avoided. It's utter nonsense of course because we've wasted money on social programs and boondogles like light rail. If we had more money they would just continue to do the same.

We've more than doubled our budget in this state in the last decade and the DFL makes it sound as though those mean conservatives have been starving the people. Personally I'm glad the emergency funds prohibit it. Perhaps we can actually use the money for things like roads and bridges and not choo choos.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | August 13, 2007 6:13 PM

Canada tried out a new "rapid" bridge replacement this weekend. This wouldn't move so quickly for a bridge that crosses a river like the one that collapsed, but it may be something to look at in the future:

By the way, Alex is exactly right. Light Rail has been a boondoggle in just about every place it's been tried. And it's been tried in a lot of places, but mostly in blue states. See a pattern there?

It all started in the land of Teddy Kennedy in the mid 1970s when Boston's MBTA started buying light rail cars to replace their 30 year old Green Line cars. The new Boeing LRVs were a disaster financially and politically. In more recent times, Light Rail boondoggles have taken place in New Jersey and California and other places, and the Dems are now trying to stick it to their slaves in our 50th State to build a Honolulu LR project.

Posted by Eric | August 13, 2007 6:23 PM

All I'm trying to say is that IF light rail is going to happen, and looks like it is a damn certainty to happen on the Central Corridor, then it feels foolish to not want do it the least expensive way. Which would mean going across the rebuilt 35W bridge instead of the Washington Ave. bridge.

If you think you can stop light rail in the Central Corridor, then without any intent to cause offense, you are naive. It is going to happen.

I know light rail is expensive. I know it is an incomparable waste of resources compared to highways at getting people around. But you are not going to stop the Central Corridor with a happy dance that a cheaper crossing cannot be used because of a federal funding rule.

In fact there is almost no action being made to get the Central Corridor halted. It is going to be built. We could try and getting built cheaper, or we could sit back and watch it get built expensively.

I'm disappointed that it is not even possible to consider it, I'd like to be able to use the cost savings of avoiding the tunnel through campus and retrofitting/rebuilding Washington Avenue on other transportation causes.

Posted by OmegaPaladin | August 13, 2007 7:09 PM

I agree that at most the bridge should be designed to carry potentially carry a light rail line in the future. The idea of building up a rail line in such a hurry is a horrible idea, and would cause more problems than it solved.

I don't view light rail as useless, however. Light rail only moves people, but it moves people more efficiently than the equivalent amount of highway packed with traffic. I like the idea of mass transit systems (like my native Chicago's L and Metra) better though. That leaves the road open and takes more people off of it instead of using the road for transit.

Posted by James I. Hymas | August 13, 2007 8:28 PM

Cap'n Ed : We do have one simplification already. The state will not incorporate light rail into the design, as federal rules on emergency funds prohibit it: ... Good.

Too bad. The Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto was completed in 1918; and was determined in 1966 not to require any design changes to carry the new subway.

At 494 meters long, it's a little shorter (and much narrower) than the I-35W ... but the ounce of forethought at design time saved all kinds of money when the city inevitably got bigger.

Posted by GoDaddy | August 13, 2007 8:32 PM

Bridge design isn't rocket science, it is simply engineering and materials. Building a quality bridge "fast" isn't a reliability risk either and spanning the Mississippi River isn't a big task either...especially using modern materials and designs.

The dominant design is much lighter, stronger bridges, that flex under stress rather than crack and better resist corrosion.

What may come out of the investigation is significant corrosion induced by heavy salting of the roadway during winter that lead to cracking because of the load/temperature changes.

But it does make a lot of sense to have same company do both design and construction. Knowing all of the decisions made during the Design phase will make it much easier to order materials and plan the construction.

As an engineer, it seems to me that MnDOT is making the all the right moves at the moment...

Posted by Steven Den Beste | August 13, 2007 8:58 PM

Those designs didn't take into account the need to span the Mississippi...

That's true, but one of them did have to deal with San Francisco Bay. (That was the repairs to the Oakland Bay Bridge.)

Posted by TW | August 13, 2007 11:37 PM

Fast-track just means that they start building the earliest parts before the latter parts are designed and bid. Drilling piers for the foundation can start right away once they decide on the basic design. Will it span the entire river or will there be intermediate piers? That's the single biggest decision. After that, all the parts can be pre-ordered.

Posted by I R A Darth Aggie | August 14, 2007 9:19 AM

Those designs didn't take into account the need to span the Mississippi...

But it isn't like the Mississippi hasn't been bridged before. Here are some examples of bridging over channels that make the Mississippi in Minneapolis look simple:

The first to be completed this fall, the second by 2011.

Posted by TJ | August 14, 2007 11:23 AM

Let us not forget one of the country's last big design-build projects: Boston's Big Dig.

That $250 million will just be a drop in the bucket...

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