Building Bridges: Haste Makes Waste

August 15, 2007 by susan
schematic of bridge design

Susan writes:
My beloved, forward-thinking mother, who went to jail with Martin Luther King in Albany, GA and was a big supporter of women's rights, defaulted in the last years of her long life to an odd reverence for the abilities of men. Did I mention she suffered from mild senile dementia?

One of her standard riffs was that we need men to build bridges, that it was the sort of thing that didn't interest women. Our job, she ventured, was to civilize the men. (Did I mention the dementia?)

So here we are with a bunch of men -- and Lt. Gov/Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau -- setting out to build a bridge. (And probably a slew of women engineers as well, sorry mother.) And predictably, there's a squabble.
Details here.

Governor Plenty-of-nothing, who, once the mourning is over, has to be mighty chagrinned that this major bridge fell down on his watch one year before his Republican convention, leads the forces for expediency: Put up a wider version of what was there and do it fast. That's all that can be done with federal emergency dollars, so enough with your liberal dreams.

Mayor R.T. Rybak leads the forces for expanded thought: Take a deep breath and look at the whole picture. Something good should emerge from this tragedy. Those who died deserve a better memorial than a slap-dash replacement.

Urban planners say, "Don't hold your breath, the feds don't work this way." Transit advocates and environmentalists say, "Look to the future, plan for what's to be, build accordingly." I, along with a few other aphorism-spouters, say, "Haste makes waste."

The feds, and Bushco and Plenty-of-nothing say that they're "giving" us the money to rebuild it their way. Funny, isn't it our tax dollar? Our city? Our anguish?

Well, male or female, you can weigh in on this debate. On Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at Roseville High School, MnDOT is hosting a bridge open house for public comment. You can find more information about the open house, and the bridge, at the MnDOT website and also post your own comments about what sort of bridge you think should replace the one that failed.

And while you're at it, you might comment on what sort of leaders we need to replace those who have failed us.

To get your thought processes going, here are some talking points from the transportation chair of the Sierra Club, North Star Chapter.

1. The I35W bridge collapse, while tragic, offers a unique
opportunity to correct a mistake made 40 years ago, when the
collapsed freeway bridge was put up with no thought to future rail
transit. The new bridge, whether or not part of a specific current
transit project, should be designed to be "light rail ready," so that
it is easy to add light rail in the future.

2. Fed requirements that emergency money only be used to replace what failed have the unintended consequence of blocking change. Over 50 years, the needs of the downtown Minneapolis have actually made freeways obsolete if they do not also include other modes.

3. A 100-year bridge deserves more investment up front than the $200 million now projected. You get what you pay for. If all we get is materials and structure that last 100 years, but nothing in the way of functional flexibility, the investment is not worth it.

4. There has been significantly less increase in gridlock than
anticipated since the bridge collapsed. This suggests our freeway
systems into downtown may be overbuilt. We should concentrate on other modes, not more roads.

5. The Met Council currently has a list of some 28 possible light
rail routes various parts of the metro are interested in seeing
built. Many if not all cross one or more barriers, such as the
Mississippi. Bridges are the most expensive part of such projects. We should get the most out of bridge investments by making them multimodal.

6. Routing the Central Corridor into downtown Mpls across a new I-35Wbridge should be seriously and quickly considered given this new opportunity. Although there are trade-offs, it would solve the
deadlock over the cost of a tunnel under Washington Ave through the U of M campus, because the line would be routed instead along the northeastern edge of campus and then into downtown, saving more than $80 million. Peter Bell of the Met Council has for years been carping about how the Central Corridor budget must be trimmed. Here is a perfect opportunity.

7. The Washington Ave Bridge connecting the East Bank and West Bank campuses of the U is actually 2 years older than the bridge that collapsed, and would have to be rebuilt and expanded under the current Central Corridor LRT alignment choice.

Mathews Hollinshead
Transportation Chair
Sierra Club North Star Chapter
651-698-0260 (o
612-209-3559 (cell

Posted in


barbara aka babs (not verified) | August 15, 2007 - 4:06pm

Booyah! Great post, ma'am. Grim Tim seems determined to make up for lost time (say, all the years of his Bush Republican term). I reckon it's not fair to lay the bridge collapse at his feet, or at least at his feet alone. But he has a responsibility to the living and the dead to ensure that the successor bridge is built correctly and with vision.

Okay. The vision thing is not a strong point with Bush Republicans. But there must be folks around him (including women) who have some.

Let's stop doing stupid stuff with our money. And yes, Susan's right. It is our money. So the right question to ask is, "How shall we spend our money?"

Slow. Down. And. Do. It. Right.


perhansa (not verified) | August 15, 2007 - 5:51pm

Knowing what I do about "projects," they rarely ever get done on schedule without strong financial incentives for the contractor and dedicated collaboration from the project "sponsor". The end of 2008 seems like wishful thinking to me as it is. If the price is right, the contractor will be looking at all possible ways to earn those incentives...but this is too visible to sacrifice safety. I don't see that happening.

California has put bridges back up in as little as 26 weeks and they are quite safe and they didn't compromise the inspection/review process. However, those bridges were not this size and not over water. Faster isn't necessarily less safe if the inspection and review process is meticulously followed. We've learned a lot about bridge construction in forty years. It can be done quickly AND safely if the city authorities get involved, plan ahead, and clear bureaucratic roadblocks out of the way. I'm not that worried about a "rush job".

My concern is that we don't think about or plan for future use of the bridge for lightrail, bikes, pedestrians, and other forms of transit. It's the excuses as to why we can't stop and make plans based on future need that concerns me most. If this isn't the perfect time to think ahead, is there ever a perfect time? When ARE we going to think beyond next week or next month or next fiscal year?

Conservativism by nature = reluctance to change + steadfast maintainance of the status quo. So, we shouldn't be surprised at Pawlenty and others balking. We also shouldn't be pushed by a Governor known for throwing his weight around and thinking he calls the shots or by how much money the Fed sends us. I want to hear from our Legislators who pushed for longer term transportation planning. It shouldn't be R.T. against the Gov and Molnau. Let's not build a bridge like the Twins are buidling a ballpark (no retractable roof--in Minnesota!).

To borrow another baseball concept, Minneapolis-St. Paul seems to be turning into a "small market" city--no longer in a class with Seattle or Denver or Toronto, etc. Maybe it's the expansive sprawl that leaves people disconnected from their city. I don't know. You have to wonder, is adding more lane capacity to the new bridge the best we can do? Is that what most Minnesotans want? Maybe...if we don't want to pay taxes sufficient to support progressive infrastructure, then I guess we'll look a lot like other small market cities soon enough.


barbara aka babs (not verified) | August 15, 2007 - 6:07pm

. . . and a governor whose polling approval is now 59% (since the bridge collapse) -- the highest of his time in office. Are the people really speaking or are we like sheep? Hey! I think I'll compose an oratorio!


B (not verified) | August 15, 2007 - 7:39pm

Baa Baa
Get out and VOTE.
Baa Baa


Anonymous (not verified) | August 15, 2007 - 8:36pm

HELP! I can't remember why the neocons/no tax folks hate Light Rail?


susan | August 16, 2007 - 11:22am

Why the no-taxers hate LRT? Hmm, I don't recall either, but I think it has something to do with innate distrust of anything that lumps us all together vs. the car which allows us to hurtle along in our own little pods. The rugged indivdual thing. Also, in some cities they've been badly planned and so not cost-effective. And we know that the neocons are all about cost effectiveness --or like to think they are. (Don't bring up Iraq in that regard.)
As for a quickly built bridge being unsafe, I didn't mean to imply that. Wasn't it the bridge in Oakland, CA that collapsed in an earthquake that went up in record time? And wasn't it because there were time-related incentives for the contractor?
I did mean to say what you're saying Perhansa, that we need to take more time at the front-end to look at what sort of bridge best fits the needs of the city and the entire metro area.
And yeah, don't get me started on the stadium. I'm out of step with many folks on this one in that I don't oppose building a new one, but it's such an ugly clunker, and with no retractable roof. In Minnesota. Madness.