Bridge hindsight

The new I-35W bridge opens next week and after a pause to remember the victims of the calamity, and tip a hat or two to the people who built the new bridge in record time, it will be time to look back and ask this question: Did the state really have to throw a boatload of money at the project to get it built so fast?

After the shock of the collapsed bridge subsided, the initial reaction was that losing a major interstate bridge through the heart of the state’s largest city would be a nightmare. Traffic would come to a standstill.

There were many heroes in the aftermath of bridge collapse, but some of them have gone unheralded: the engineers and transportation planners who figured out a system that ultimately would make the absence of the bridge an inconvenience to most people. (See the traffic map)

Here were the keys:

  • Turning Highway 280 into a replacement interstate highway. In one weekend, MnDOT transformed a road that handled 57,000 cars a day into a highway that could take on an additional 100,000.
  • In just a few days, the breakdown lanes of I-94 near the river were turned into additional lanes, allowing a two-lane entrance onto Highway 280. It made the I-94 trip a more “harrowing experience,” some MPR listeners told us, but traffic congestion was held to typical rush-hour levels.
  • Metro Transit pulled a couple dozen buses out of retirement and increased service on more than a dozen express routes, added two new express routes on the North Metro, added more service to existing local routes, and added hundreds of new park-and-ride spaces, mostly north of the city. Coupled with light-rail, ridership reached a 24-year high following the bridge collapse. So far this year, ridership is up 8.5%.

    Much of the increased service was paid for with an emergency federal grant, so the service increases will stay until the end of the year. Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons told me this afternoon he expects ridership to hold steady even after the bridge reopens, partly because of the increase in gasoline prices.

  • It didn’t hurt a bit that a major widening of I-494 south of the city was completed around the time the bridge collapse, so 494 took on a lot of the through traffic of 94.

    Hindsight is 20-20 and few people (if any) were predicting that things would be so relatively smooth during the I-35W bridge’s absence.

    So little more than a month after the tragedy, state officials awarded a contract for a new bridge to a firm that wasn’t the low bidder on the project. They desperately wanted a bridge completed fast, to avoid the nightmare scenario that, as it turned out, never developed.

    The project was originally estimated to cost $200-$250 million. It ended up pushing $400 million. The company building the bridge gets $200,000 a day for every day the bridge is finished before December 24, with a limit of 100 days’ of payments. That’s $20 million. If the bridge opens next Tuesday, as expected, it will open 100 days early.

    The firm also got another $7 million for not asking for any more money to complete the bridge.

    The losing bidders for the bridge project, also got hundreds of thousands of dollars in walk-away money, to encourage them to bid for the project on short notice.

    There was, of course, a cost associated with the collapse on the traveling public. The state estimated it would cost motorists $400,000 a day. Although the delays were not what officials had expected, the bonus payments were calculated by dividing that number in half. Nonetheless, officials are still quoting the $400,000 figure.

    Similarly, a truckers association had estimated it would cost $125,000 in lost time and extra fuel. On the other hand, it forced delivery operations to be even more efficient, which may have an added benefit once the new bridge opens.

    Could the bridge have been built for less? The losing bidders say it could have. Could motorists have put up with the current situation for months more? Sure.

    But who knew?

    • Alison

      The engineers really did a great job shifting the traffic load.

    • bsimon

      “But who knew?”

      Knowing what they knew then, they made the best decision possible. Hopefully they’ll now have better information when evaluating other bridge replacements. It seems we have plenty of those in the queue.

    • There’s no doubt that once there was an emergency, MNDoT was able to do amazing things.

      However, there is little evidence change in the way ongoing projects are being handled in the existing MNDoT structure. Responsibility remains diffuse and far too much is farmed out to contractors. The “core competencies” that define the organization appear to be little more than writing checks and filing reports.

      What we learned, more than anything, is that there are good people at MNDoT who can get the job done. We have yet to find an administrative structure that turns that energy loose on a constant basis – rather than rely on contractors who have a strong vested interest in telling management what it wants to hear.

    • As someone who lives near the bridge itself, I can tell you that the impact on the traffic is not only on 280 and 494. There are major backups every day on University and 10th Ave Bridge from people trying to get across.

      Anyone north of the river has to go through downtown instead of just get on 35 in order to get anywhere in any south suburbs – it’s quite annoying. And while the traffic on 94 isn’t as bad as some people said it might be, it is also still much worse than it was before the collapse, even with the extra lanes, and a crash within the zone where there is basically no median on a four lane highway causes way more traffic impact than before.

      It’s definitely an inconvenience, and I will be happy when the bridge opens just because my gas bill will be significantly improved from not having to go through 5-7 stop lights in downtown every day.

    • The I-35 bridge collapse is only a symptom of larger problems with an antiquated transportation paradigm. We are trying to operate 20th century machines on a 19th century or older infrastructure design. If we updated our current road/rail system to the 21st century it would be automated and use solar and wind energy for power. Such a system would be faster, safer, greener, more efficient, more convenient, and cheaper than what we are trying to maintain today. Furthermore, all of the technology required is in use today. For more discussion of this system see the nationa personal transit blog at