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Bridges at risk

Book documents those in state most in need of repair

By Dawn Schuett

schuett@postbulletin.com

Three years before the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, author Denis P. Gardner decided his next book would be on the historic bridges in the state.

By then, he had seen for himself that many older bridges were in need of repair. He participated in a survey in the 1990s of bridges in counties and cities across Minnesota.

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"Now, I’m not a bridge engineer, and I don’t take core samples from bridges to see what they look like on the inside, but it surprised me that so many were physically troubling," Gardner wrote in an e-mail to the Post-Bulletin.

"The truth is that the counties and the cities have little money available for maintenance of bridges," Gardner added. "I know this because I have spent so much time at county highway departments and city engineering offices and have heard the complaints. And, of course, I also know this from looking at so many bridges."

Gardner’s book notes the design, construction and lack of maintenance of historic bridges in the state. Some of the bridges he researched are in southeast Minnesota and include the Zumbrota dovered bridge, the Third Street Bridge in Cannon Falls and the Arches in Winona County.

What was the original purpose for writing the book and did that change after the I-35W bridge collapse?

My hope is that the bridge book will make people more aware that this piece of our history offers a glimpse into our infrastructural past, and some of this infrastructure is worth saving — it is a reflection of where we have been, and acknowledging that is a good thing. The collapse of the Interstate Highway 35W Bridge did not change the overarching goal of the book, but it added a kind of poignancy to it. Our historic bridges suffer in the same way that many of our other bridges suffer — there is little money to properly maintain them.

As you visited bridges throughout the state and talked with experts, were you surprised by anything in your research?

Honestly, there was nothing that truly surprised me... Back during the survey is when I discovered that so many of our bridges were in rough physical shape... It is an odd system that we have. We can appropriate funds for a new bridge (although it may take some time), but we have very little money for maintaining the bridge once it is built. This is like building a new house for your family and then not putting any money into its maintenance.

In your book, you referred to the nation’s "propensity to allow bridges to become faulty to the point that replacement becomes the chief — and perhaps only — option." In your opinion, will that approach ever change and if so, what would it take to make the change?

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I honestly don’t know how much our approach to our bridges will change. I hope that a fresh awareness blooms out of the tragedy of the Interstate Highway 35W Bridge. Like never before, that event made the public aware of maintenance issues surrounding our bridge infrastructure. But will our federal, state, and local governmental systems change to bring more maintenance dollars to our bridge infrastructure? I just don’t know.

Common sense informs us that we should have had money for taking care of our bridges a long time ago. If the tragedy of the Interstate Highway 35W bridge doesn’t shake us into the realization that we have neglected the bridge maintenance issue, I don’t know what else will.

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