35W bridge ‘sidewalk talks’ offer reflection, a look ahead

A crowd of about 30 people followed MNDoT engineers through an informational tour over the 10th Avenue bridge in mid-January.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Tours begin every Saturday, 11 a.m., in the Grandma's Saloon parking lot, 1810 Washington Ave. S.

Feb. 1 marked six months since the Aug. 1 collapse of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River. Even as we look back to remember the tragedy, work is well underway to replace the fallen bridge.

Since November, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDoT) and Flatiron-Manson, the construction team on the project, have led “Sidewalk Superintendent Tours” around the periphery of the construction, now nearing its fourth month of work.

The weekly walk-and-talks offer everything one would want to know and more about the rebuilding process. Starting each Saturday at 11 a.m. in the parking lot of Grandma’s Saloon, 1810 Washington Ave. S., the event is largely a question-and-answer session driven by the inquisitive public.

“It does get pretty technical,” said Amy Barrett, public information officer for Flatiron-Manson. The tours draw engineers, university students, and other generally curious folks whose questions often delve deep into the details of bridge engineering and construction. Between the inquisitive public and the informational narrative of the tour guide, the hour-and-a-half-long tour gives a both broad and focused update on the construction — provided one can hear. One drawback is the noisy passing traffic, which can drown out the speaker, especially for larger groups.

The Jan. 26 talk drew about 30 people. The tour moves from the West Bank side onto the 10th Avenue bridge, stopping at several different vantage points. Informational signs (which can be viewed at any time) detail many aspects of the construction, from an overview, statistics and timeline of the project to how the bridge segments, piers and abutments are being created and will come together as a completed bridge by Dec. 24 of this year. (Such information and more is available on MNDoT’s website, www.mndot.gov.)

Of more interest, of course, is the real show going on just beyond the chain-link fencing, where crews — working around the clock, two shifts a day, six to seven days a week — have transformed the closed freeway and riverbanks into work yards. On the West Bank, workers are casting, in huge temperature-controlled sheds (50 degrees), the 120 sections of concrete that, once finished and cured, will be placed by cranes on platforms floating on the river.

From beside the river, huge cranes tower over the site and 10th Avenue bridge viewing area. Below, crews are driving shafts and erecting the eight columns that will support the 504-foot-long bridge. Visible on the east bank, below the edge of the remaining freeway, is the towering stone wall built in 1881, according to Bob Edwards, assistant production manager for Flatiron-Manson, who led the Jan. 26 talk.

Edwards relayed his knowledge of the project over a small portable speaker and answered the many questions from the interested crowd. Rick Polanski, a Southwest Minneapolis resident and former Seward Redesign employee, said his background and interest in engineering drew him to the talk. “It’s fascinating to find out about it,” said Polanski, who said he’d like to see a similar weekly update on local television. “I think a lot of people would be interested in the process,” he said. He planned to return the next weekend with his son, a civil engineer.

Retired MNDoT bridge design engineer Donald Heinrich has missed only one weekly tour so far. He called the work a “first-class project” on a different level of construction than most will likely see in their lifetime. While Heinrich marveled at the overall project, he tuned into the details with an engineer’s eye. “It’s ticklish pouring [concrete] around that drain,” he said, pointing to an existing storm sewer outlet near the half-built columns on the east bank.

While the conversation focused on the new bridge and the future, the tragedy that made the project necessary was undoubtedly in the back of people’s minds. “I think it would have been easier to leave the old bridge up,” said Seward resident Bernie Waibel with straight-faced wit. “For the $1.5 million they could have spent, they let it go down,” he said, noting that even before investigations began, the state admitted that the doomed bridge was in subpar shape. “I’m still pretty upset about it.”

last revised: February 7, 2008