Minneapolis bridge collapse shocks nation of drivers

| 8/2/2007

A 40-year-old bridge over Interstate 35W, one of the busiest bridges in Minneapolis, collapsed at 6:05 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1, during rush hour, killing at least four and injuring 79. The incident could not have been more shocking to a nation of highway users.

As of press time, another 20 to 30 people were still unaccounted for, according to authorities. Authorities said approximately 50 vehicles plunged into the Mississippi River.

“To see the whole bridge to go down like that is unthinkable,” OOIDA Life Member Harvey Zander of Saint Louis Park, MN, told Land Line. Zander and his wife, Karen, are owner-operators leased to Dart Transit, Eagan, MN.

“It wasn’t that long ago that they checked that bridge and it was fine,” he said. “You didn’t hear anything about it.”

Included in the vivid news footage of the aftermath was a tractor-trailer in flames, caught under the collapsed concrete and steel of the bridge.

Names of victims involved in the tragedy have not yet been released. Rescue efforts have now become recovery missions.

The bridge was a major route, both for the public and for trucking. The state Department of Transportation worked ‘round the clock to implement alternate routes to keep traffic moving.

From the north, the designated route for trucks is to go south on I-35W, west on State Highway 36, south on State Highway 280, and then west on Interstate 94 to cross the river and hook back in to I-35W.

From the south, the route from I-35W includes exiting east on I-94, north on state Highway 280, and then east on state Highway 36 to hook into I-35W again.

Click here for more descriptions of the alternate routes.

Steve Gundale, spokesman for Dart Transit based in the Minneapolis region, told Land Line about the company’s busy re-routing effort.

“The problem with (state Highway) 280 is that it’s not adequate for carrying that kind of traffic load,” Gundale said. “It’s four-lane, but it’s narrow and the approaches and interchanges on there are very sharp and very slow.”

Access to city streets from the detour roads will be limited, according to DOT officials who had planned a press conference for Thursday afternoon.

“Right now, our understanding is that the DOT has closed off access to these routes because they need to have emergency access,” Gundale said. “They need to have free passage for ambulances, construction equipment and whatever they need for the relief efforts. After that, they’ll be addressing the transit needs for the community.”

Traffic looking to bypass the Twin Cities is encouraged to take the Interstate 694 or Interstate 494 loops around the city.

“One route that’s not alternate at this point is 35E, which goes through St. Paul downtown, and the reason for that is there is a stretch that is prohibited for trucks,” Gundale said.

The possibility of 35E being opened as an alternate route had not yet been confirmed by the Minnesota DOT.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters issued a statement Thursday to say the federal government had granted a state request for $5 million in relief funds.

Funds will be used to clear debris, restore traffic flow and begin rebuilding the bridge.

The cause of the collapse remains unknown.

A report by the state DOT in 2005 showed the bridge to be “structurally deficient,” which was a cause for concern but not in need of immediate reaction at that time, Gov. Tim Pawlenty stated publicly.

“We know the bridge was inspected in 2005 and 2006 by state inspectors, and while there was some stress or surface concerns noted, they didn’t call for or identify a need for the bridge to be replaced,” Pawlenty said.

Travelers, truck traffic and commuters will have to get used to the alternate routes as the city recovers from the tragic event.

“We’ll of course be watching it because we’ll have to adjust for our own operations,” Gundale told Land Line. “Some of our customers are right in the area that’s affected there, so we’re not sure at this point how we’re even going to get into them, but we’ll have to try to figure that out as the circumstances change.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer