As groundbreaking began on the new I-35W Bridge on November 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation released $123.5 million in federal emergency funds to begin paying for reconstruction costs until Congress votes on the $195 million that remain locked in a transportation bill conference committee. The new funding will alleviate some of the concerns about reconstruction costs that could delay other construction projects, including the Wakota Bridge which is on hold.
However, the federal transportation emergency account is at $175 million and allocating one of the largest transportation aid packages in recent history drains most of the money. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty now will return to the Legislature to obtain authority to spend this new funding and, Senate Transportation chair Steve Murphy said legislators will give him that authority as long as the state has the funds.
On the I-35W Bridge's north side, a 9-foot auger began boring a 112-foot test shaft to perform pressure tests on the shaft before digging the actual shafts for the bridge footings and piers. Other workers assembled 50-foot-long cylindrical cages out of rebar, and on the south side, crews continued excavating, and then began pile driving using a diesel-powered drill rig near pier 1. MnDOT alerted nearby residents that pile driving will take place between 7 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. from Monday through Saturday and will mitigate noise as much as possible.
Another crew continued working on the casting yard where pre-cast sections of the bridge will be made. The site will be located on I-35W between Washington Avenue and the end of the roadway where the former bridge stood.
On the previous day, a judge rejected a request for a restraining order that would have stopped any work on the new bridge. The judge said that the state's interest in going ahead with the bridge outweighed any damage caused to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs, both in the construction industry, had argued that MnDOT used an illegal process to select the contractors and that the process was not in the best interest of the state.
However, the judge also said that MnDOT appeared to cloak its decision in secrecy when it didn't take the opportunity to explain its decisions and release data before the contract was signed.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters commented last week that NTSB investigators have a "working theory" of the bridge collapse and that is a combination of poorly designed gusset plates and too much weight placed on the north side of the bridge from construction equipment used during repairs to the bridge. A spokesperson for Peters said the NTSB would want to look into the lack of maintenance issue but its theory is that it is not a lack of inspections but a design flaw and weight.
This theory fends off critics who hold officials at MnDOT responsible for the bridge collapse. However, an NTSB spokesperson said, "We're also looking at the maintenance and repair history. We're looking at the de-icing fluids — any role they may have played. We basically haven't ruled anything out yet."
After a bridge inspector from Minnesota testified before Congress that MnDOT did not have enough bridge inspectors and a top MnDOT official fired back that he misled Congress about the number of inspectors and their workload, a review of MnDOT's bridge program has begun. Minnesota's legislative auditor is conducting the review to sort through facts, analyze information and report its findings to the public in February.