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Bridge closure will be a hassle for commuters

Associated Press

At a time when gas prices are soaring, the extra miles people must drive to detour past the closed Highway 43 bridge in Winona will be a significant costs to commuters and businesses, Winona Mayor Jerry Miller said.

Paul Anderson’s commute from Galesville, Wis., to Winona usually takes 25 minutes. Now he will have to leave home before 5 a.m. to make it to work by 6. But his greatest concern is financial.

"With the gas prices, it’s gonna be tough," he said.

Still, he said, the inconvenience is better than the alternative.

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"It’s better than being on it and falling into the river," Anderson said.

The two-lane Winona bridge is 2,289 feet long and carries aobut 11,600 vehicles per day. The roadway becomes Wisconsin Highway 54 on the east side of the river.

MnDOT twice inspected the Highway 43 bridge in 2007 and found no red flags — though State Bridge Engineer Dan Dorgan said those inspections didn’t closely examine the gusset plates.

Engineers have said the gussets on the 35W bridge were too thin to support its weight. The problem with the Winona bridge is different, Dorgan said, because it’s due to wear and corrosion on the plates, not a design flaw.

Bent gusset plates discovered during an inspection led MnDOT to permanently close down the Highway 23 bridge over the Mississippi in St. Cloud in March.

MnDOT and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation plan to begin work as soon as Monday on fortifying some gusset plates on the Interstate 535 John A. Blatnik Memorial Bridge between Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis., over the St. Louis River. Officials reduced traffic from four lanes to two last month because those gussets don’t meet load requirements. That work will take about a month.

Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said MnDOT did the right thing by closing the Winona bridge.

"MnDOT has been taking an extra close look at these gusset plates on a lot of different kind of bridges across the state," Murphy said. "It doesn’t surprise me they’re finding problems. But if they have to close a few bridges to keep people safe, that’s better than a bridge collapse."

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Other residents and officials in communities on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi reacted with dismay when they learned they were losing their main route to Winona.

Debbie Scholl, city council president in Fountain City, Wis., said her community will have to find another ambulance service because Winona handled its calls. The closest alternative ambulance provider, she said, is Cochrane Scenic Valley, about 10 miles away.

Scholl also works in Winona, she said, and expects her commute will go from 6 miles to 72 miles each way. She estimated about one-third of Fountain City’s residents make the daily trip to Winona.

"Just about everyone we know works in Winona," she said. "With gas prices, I’m hoping employers will work with us a little."

The problem might be reversed for Arcadia, Wis., said city council member Vilas Hanson. He thinks more people come from Winona to his community, home of Ashley Furniture and Gold ’n Plump chicken, to work.

Arcadia is normally about a 30-mile drive from Winona, but either detour will tack on an additional 70 to 75 miles.

"We just take it for granted that that bridge is there," Hanson said.

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