Spanning the river again

New I-35W bridge opens, plans for Gold Medal Park memorial unveiled

Hundreds of people gathered before dawn on Sept. 18 to witness the first motorists cross the new Interstate 35W bridge.

Escorted by squad cars, fire trucks and ambulances, the first cars drove over the bridge around 5 a.m., prompting cheers from onlookers who gathered with cameras to photograph and videotape the historic event.

The new bridge opened just 13 months after the old I-35W bridge plunged into the Mississippi River on Aug. 1, 2007, claiming the lives of 13 people and seriously injuring 145 others. A design flaw in the bridge’s gusset plates may have been one reason behind the collapse. However, a final report by the National Transportation and Safety Board is expected in November.

Just days before the bridge opening, several public officials reflected on the milestone at a news conference on the south end of the bridge.

“We express remembrance and reflection for those who lost their lives or were impacted by this event, but we also express appreciation and gratitude for those who have responded in such an ideal manner to the initial response [and] as a team to get this bridge rebuilt,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty said at the Sept. 15 press briefing.

Officials also unveiled plans for a memorial for the bridge victims. The “Remembrance Garden” in Gold Medal Park will feature 13 upright I-beams, engraved with the names of those who lost their lives in the bridge collapse. The memorial, designed by Tom Oslund, will be located just west of the bridge site, and be paid for with $1 million in private donations.

Nearly every city, state and federal official at a news conference on the bridge deck Sept. 15 said the bridge was built fast, strong and safe.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) said that while dropping his daughter off at school earlier that morning, she asked him: “It went up so fast. Is it safe?”

“I assured her that from my understanding, talking to engineers, this was about the safest bridge we could build right now,” he said.

City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) agreed.

“Having seen the designs as they were being created, and having talked indepth with people about what safety features are in place, I am certain this is a safe bridge,” she said.

The bridge is built with multiple redundancies, meaning if one portion fails, the entire structure will not collapse. It was designed and built to carry traffic for a minimum of 100 years.

The maximum number of Flatiron-Manson workers was about 600 at peak employment, working day and night. About 80 percent of them were Minnesotans, according to Flatiron-Manson spokesperson Amy Barrett.

Crews worked on the dual-span bridge 339 days, through blizzards and tornado warnings, but ultimately a few days of rain during the final weekend stymied painting and slightly delayed the bridge’s opening.

It was unclear as of press time whether Flatiron-Manson were eligible for the full $27 million in federal incentives for completing the contract 90 days ahead of schedule and without extra funding.

There are a slue of safety features and monitors embedded in the new I-35W bridge that will transmit real-time data to MnDOT and the University of Minnesota.

It is also “light-rail ready.” However, the bridge has not yet been identified as a viable light-rail corridor, and there is no timetable associated with getting trains on the bridge, according to Hornstein.

United State Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters, back in Minneapolis for the unveiling, said the Mississippi looked vastly different than when she flew in to the city more than a year ago. She said the structure represents exactly what should happen when local, state and federal jurisdictions partner together and are clear in their goals.

“It shouldn’t take a tragedy to build a bridge this fast in America,” Peters said, “and it would be a travesty if we didn’t share the secrets that this state, this community brought together to make this project happen so quickly.”

Mayor R.T. Rybak spoke briefly, finding a silver lining in the terrible disaster.

“The message out of today is really very clear,” Rybak said. “We learned a year ago what happens when a bridge collapses, and today, I believe, we show what happens when every arm of this community reaches across this river and builds connections that are far stronger than concrete and steel.”