On Aug. 1, 2007, in the middle of St. Paul-Minneapolis’ rush hour, the heavily-travelled eight-lane I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed.
Thirteen people were killed. Another 145 people were injured.
Roll your eyes in boredom about infrastructure, if you must, but building and maintaining it is important.
The I-35W Bridge was designed in the early 1960s when major expansions of U.S. highways were relatively common. By the time it fell, that bridge was 40 years old, handling far higher traffic loads than anticipated. It was still the most recent river crossing built on a new site in Minneapolis.
Unlucky drivers may have been the only ones surprised when it collapsed. The bridge was rated “structurally deficient” in 1990 and again in 2005. Intermittent studies had revealed cracked girders and fatigue. If it hadn’t fallen, the bridge was scheduled to be replaced . . . in 2020.
Minnesota may seem a long way off. But there’s a direct line between their past and our potential future. It’s a road pocked with potholes, linked with aging bridges and paved with little more than promises.
There’s no cheap fix. Peoria County roads alone could use $200 million. On top of its own roads, the City of Peoria may need that much or more for a long-delayed combined-sewer overflow project.
All of which comes before President Donald Trump’s latest budget.
“We haven’t fully dug into the federal bill yet but it appears to flip the equation for projects with federal funds,” Peoria’s Director of Public Works Scott Reeise said via email.
Federal money has provided a maximum of 80 percent for projects, leaving only 20 percent for locals to match. Now the maximum federal participation would be 20 percent, leaving locals with the lion’s share of the tab.
“It is just very hard to fully anticipate the effects right now, though, because it is so new and not adopted yet,” Reeise said.
Considering the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates the federal government’s annual investment has been less than two-thirds of what is needed already, the prospects are not promising for maintenance, much less expansion, of American infrastructure.
Minnesota was never alone. One of every three bridges in the U.S. is rated as structurally deficient or functionally obsolete by the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
In Illinois, 8 percent of our 27,000 bridges are structurally deficient and 7 percent are functionally obsolete. With 74 structurally deficient bridges, Peoria County has been ranked third-worst in the state, with only Lake and Cook counties behind us.
Peoria County Engineer Amy McLaren explained the terms. Bridges are ranked numerically from 100 — new and perfect — to zero.
“A bridge in the single digits means that it is in advanced stages of some sort of deterioration and probably has a load limit posted on it, if it is not already closed,” she said via email. “Once a bridge hits 50 on the sufficiency rating, it is called structurally deficient.”
There are 19 such bridges in the county’s inventory. Three of them — Riekena, Richwoods and Streitmatter — are closed. Others are posted for limited loads because they are functionally obsolete.
“Functionally obsolete means that when the bridges were built, the design standards at the time were not built to accommodate current traffic,” McLaren said. “That is, these older bridges have a lesser weight carrying capacity than how we currently build bridges. Additionally, they are also generally narrower and cannot handle wider loads (think about the current size of combines vs. older farm equipment from 50 years ago that was considerably smaller). This poses a challenge for freight type and farm to market traffic.”
But infrastructure is a lot more than bridges. It means roads, dams, trains, airports, transit, water and electrical service. Some of these areas are in even worse shape.
Every four years, the American Society of Civil Engineers issues its Infrastructure Report Card to illustrate the need. In 2014, U.S. bridges got a C+. Assessing all 16 categories, American infrastructure got a D+. That means “Poor. At Risk.”
Illinois’ report card looks slightly better than the nation’s scores.
We got a C-, which translates to “Mediocre. Requires attention.” But our roads, transit, wastewater and navigable water were all in the D range. There is little reason to think the scores will go up when the latest report card is issued this spring.
What does that mean locally? What will it cost? And who pays?
To say the numbers are in flux during federal budget talks is putting it mildly.
Reeise said the city already increased road funding by $5.2 million in 2014. The city now puts $9 million a year in infrastructure, which has helped it schedule projects to get back on track.
“A number of projects are on the five-year plan to be addressed. Our biggest challenge is just keeping up the infrastructure until they can be,” he said. “But we have been very lucky as council has seen the importance of the preventative maintenance and has started funding that.”
According to Reeise, the city could use $125 million-plus on just six road projects: Pioneer Parkway Extension, $75 million; West Main Street Corridor Reconstruction, $14 million; Glen Avenue from War Memorial Drive to University Street, $8 million; Glen from Sheridan Road to Knoxville Avenue, $2.5 million; Lake Street reconstruction from Sheridan to Knoxville, $2.5 million; Western Avenue Reconstruction, from Farmington Road to Adams Street, $25 million.
According to McLaren, more than $200 million in projects were identified while preparing for the 2016 road referendum. County roads encompass everything from urban roads with pedestrians to rural roads with massive farm equipment.
“This included full reconstruction of some roads, widening shoulders, as well as mill and overlays of others,” McLaren said. “Our network is very diverse.”
On Sept. 18, 2008, what is now called the I-35W Saint Anthony Falls Bridge opened, ahead of schedule. It cost more than $250 million. It’s already aging.