MnDOT still has far to go

Published 9:16 am Thursday, July 31, 2008

The collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis a year ago should have been a clarion call to jump-start the agency that was at least partially responsible for this epic calamity.

But a year later, a sense of urgency on the part of the leadership at the Minnesota Department of Transportation seems lacking. The agency seemed to shrug off the most recent example of crumbling infrastructure: a 3-foot by 6-foot piece of the Maryland Avenue bridge over I-35E fell off, and certainly could have killed motorists below.

The bridge is 50 years old and its starting to rain 1,200-pound concrete chunks on the unlucky people who expect that driving on major highways in the state will be safe. MnDOT inspected the bridge, declared it structurally sound and went about its business. After an inspection last year, MnDOT officials knew the bridge deck was breaking down but nothing suggested pieces would break off, MnDOT chief bridge engineer Dan Dorgan told the Star Tribune.

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Dorgan went to say the crumbling bridge “concerns us” but “for 50-year-old concrete, thats the type of deterioration you often see.” The question of course is: If we often see it, why don’t we fix it, often?

While new MnDOT Commissioner Tom Sorel, a qualified engineer, seems to have a calming effect on the agency and is mending political relations with the Legislature, some of his responses clearly have gone through the political editing process at the governor’s office.

Sorel continued last month to insist MnDOT did not make decisions on bridge safety, and particularly I-35W bridge safety, based on financial considerations. An investigative report by the Legislature clearly showed money mattered. It’s clear the agency had been starved for money until the Legislature finally overrode an obstinate governor’s veto. It’s a good thing. The agency now has more money to fix bridges it has closed in St. Cloud and Winona.

If there was ever justification to create a massive infrastructure repair program on Minnesota’s bridges and roads, it seems one year after the biggest infrastructure disaster in the state would be a good time.

— Mankato Free Press, July 28