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Scary at Any Speed

August 17, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Among the many Minnesota bridges deemed structurally shakier than the Interstate Hwy. 35W span that collapsed, killing at least nine people, there's one that Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett makes a point of staying off of - the Lafayette Bridge carrying U.S. Hwy. 52 over the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

"When trucks are roaring by, that bridge moves," said Bennett, a former Republican state legislator who is outspoken in calling for new state funding for roads, bridges and transit. "I just avoid that bridge. I sure don't like sitting on it."

Opened in 1968, the Lafayette shares many of the flaws of the fallen span upriver: a lack of structural safeguards to keep it up if one part fails, beams and girders rated in poor condition and no plans to replace it anytime soon.

While the I-35W bridge wasn't scheduled for replacement before 2020, the Lafayette is on the waiting list for rebuilding and widening to six lanes in 2011. That's because it's considered to be in worse shape than the doomed span before it fell down. The Lafayette "has developed a history of structural steel fatigue problems that may not pose an immediate safety risk, but still require the constant attention of MnDOT's bridge inspectors," says the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

According to the National Bridge Inventory database, the Lafayette is in need of more than $18 million in repairs.

As early as 1975, a main beam of the bridge cracked, lowering the roadway 7 inches and nearly toppling the entire structure. The bridge was temporarily shut down, jacked up and reinforced. Despite further problems over the past 32 years, the bridge still carries 81,000 vehicles daily over a 362-foot main span 51 feet above the Mississippi. Much of the heavy traffic is large trucks barred from the I-35E parkway between the river and downtown St. Paul.

In addition to its structural deficiencies, the Lafayette has safety risks in the traffic signals at its northern end, which cause frequent backups along the two-lane northbound bridge section. Bennett said he sometimes drives over the bridge going south toward an open freeway, but not the other way.

As a county commissioner, Bennett bears responsibility for an extensive system of Ramsey County roads that are just as short of funds to maintain them as trunk highways such as U.S. 52.  With rebuilding now running up to $3 million a mile, he said, "we can redo a county road once every 120 years."

Increasing the gasoline and vehicle registration taxes, now under discussion at the State Capitol, would ease that funding crunch because some of the money is dedicated to county roads and city streets. Bennett hopes that legislators and the governor can overcome their partisan differences in the wake of the I-35W bridge tragedy and come up with a long-term transportation financing solution.

"There's all kinds of political bumper stickers on our cars, but they're all on the same roads and bridges," Bennett said. "We've got to pay for infrastructure, and it doesn't take a mental giant to figure out our roads need some work. Common sense has got to prevail sooner or later."

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