W B: 05 p.m. Churches throughout Minnesota will then ring their bells to mark the first anniversary of one of the country's worst infrastructure failures. On this date a year ago, rush hour in the Twin Cities was brought to a halt when the Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River. Thirteen people died.
The collapse put crumbling infrastructure into the nation's spotlight. The new bridge is nearly complete, but the impact of that collapse will remain long after drivers take to the new crossing.
From Minnesota Public Radio, Tom Webber reports.
TOM WEBBER: The new I35W Bridge has a fresh coat of bright white paint that will help ensure its place in the Minneapolis skyline. It will have more lanes than the old one, be able to hold more weight, and is equipped with corrosion sensors. But most amazing is that the bridge is already up, and only about eight months after construction began.
CAROL JOHNSON: I find it fascinating to see how different systems can be pulled together and coordinated in such an efficient manner.
WEBBER: Carol Johnson is one of about 4,000 people who have turned up for weekly walking tours on a bridge right next to the construction site where people have a great view of the work.
JOHNSON: It's just fascinating to see how all the different parts work together to that goal, and I enjoy watching that.
WEBBER: The work has been so fast because the collapse created a fresh worksite where crews didn't have to compete with existing traffic. The fact that Congress approved more than $200 million for the new bridge within days of the collapse also helped. The contractor can afford to keep workers there 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The last bit of concrete was just poured and the bridge should open to traffic sometime next month.
It's a stark contrast to the scene here one year ago on a hot summer night towards the end of rush hour, about an hour before a Twins game was to start less than a mile away.
W B: And the Interstate 35W Bridge over the Mississippi River in both directions has collapsed...
WEBBER: For Minnesotans, it's become one of those events, like the JFK assassination or the Challenger shuttle disaster - every one remembers where they were when they heard about the bridge collapse.
Lindsay Peterson was on the bridge when it fell. She was trapped in her car when it plunged to the bottom of the river.
LINDSAY PETERSON: That was the point when I said goodbye to my life. I thought I was dying. I tried to get out and I pushed and I had given up.
WEBBER: Peterson broke her back and was in a brace for a few months but says she probably won't have any lasting injuries. Others will though, and survivors and families of the victims will be able to tap into a special fund that the state created this year to help offset their financial losses.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is better known for investigating plane crashes, is expected to release its final report on the collapse in November. But the board released some findings in January, suggesting the bridge might have been doomed because it used gusset plates that were too thin. The board then told states to start looking more at gusset plates, which hold steel beams together.
At the heart of this is Minnesota's Department of Transportation, or Mn/DOT, which was responsible for the old bridge's upkeep and the new one's construction. Lawmakers ousted the state's transportation commissioner this spring and overrode Governor Tim Pawlenty's veto of a transportation bill which enacted a gas tax increase and other measures to infuse more money for roads and bridges.
Minnesota's new transportation commissioner, Tom Sorel, says he'll focus on safety and restoring the public's trust. He points to the fact that Mn/DOT has closed three more bridges in Minnesota after inspecting those gusset plates.
TOM SOREL: I think the closures or the lane restrictions are truly a reflection of our commitment to provide for that safety.
WEBBER: But even in Minnesota, where more funding has been added, infrastructure money is still being sought. A report this week from a national association of state transportation departments said it would take $140 billion to repair or modernize all of the nation's bridges in today's dollars. That report came out about the same time as another that suggested the government is bringing in less gas tax revenue, which pays for roads and bridges.
But even as people debate the issue of crumbling infrastructure, nature has its say. Just last weekend, as Minnesotans looked towards today's anniversary, a chunk of concrete fell off a bridge and onto Interstate 35E, less than two miles from the state capital in St. Paul. Two cars were hit but no one's hurt.
For NPR News, I'm Tom Webber in St. Paul.
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