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Bridge condition downgraded

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The Highway 61 bridge in Hastings is in even worse condition than the Minnesota Department of Transportation thought. On Thursday, MnDOT downgraded the "sufficiency rating" of the bridge by more than 20 percent.

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"Section loss," or corrosion in non-load bearing members of the bridge is the main reason for the drop, according to MnDOT spokesperson Lucy Kender.

The bridge had been rated 49.1 on a 100-point scale, and is now at 38.1. The Interstate 35W bridge that fell into the Mississippi River Aug. 1 had a sufficiency rating of 50 at the time it collapsed.

In general, MnDOT uses a bridge's structural adequacy, safety and serviceability to determine its sufficiency rating, according to Kender. It also takes into account whether the bridge is functionally obsolete and how essential it is for public use. The ratings are used to determine eligibility for federal funding for bridge replacement or rehabilitation.

MnDOT lowered the rating after analyzing a fracture critical report on the bridge that was recently released. Kender said despite the drop, the load rating on the bridge is still OK.

According to a press release from District 57 Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, a MnDOT official told her this summer's bridge repair project will "slightly improve" the bridge's sufficiency rating.

"We are spending over $2 million on a rehab project that may only 'slightly improve' the bridge's rating," Sieben said in the press release. "The Hastings bridge is the most heavily traveled two-lane bridge in Minnesota. It's time to end the Band-Aid approach and move forward with bridge replacement."

The Hastings bridge is fracture critical, meaning that if one element of the bridge were to fail, the bridge could collapse. It's also functionally obsolete, meaning that it no longer meets MnDOT roadway standards because it funnels four lanes of traffic down to two and doesn't have a shoulder, among other reasons. Additionally, the bridge is scour critical, which means river currents have damaged the bridge's supports.

Currently the Hastings bridge is scheduled for replacement around 2018, or in the "early years" of a MnDOT planning period that runs from 2015-23. Some at the state capitol aren't satisfied with that schedule, though, and a couple of different plans have emerged to move up the timeline of the bridge's replacement.

The Trunk Highway Improvement Plan is a component of a transportation bill that's moving its way through the Minnesota Legislature. The plan would place the Hastings bridge and 12 other failing state bridges in the top tier of a three-tiered plan for replacement.

The bonding portion of plan would generate a total of $600 million in trunk highway bonds from 2009-2010 that would go toward replacing 13 fracture critical state bridges in the state, including the Hastings bridge. Those bonds would be paid off by revenues from a proposed 8.5 cent gas tax increase and a debt service surcharge.

The Trunk Highway Improvement Plan, along with the broader transportation bill, passed the Senate Finance Committee Monday and is expected to go before both the House and Senate for floor votes Thursday.

District 57B Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, has also introduced bills that seek to move up the replacement of the Hastings bridge.

One would allow general obligation bonds to be used for trunk highway bridge and road projects, which is currently not allowed by the Minnesota Constitution. McNamara has proposed a constitutional amendment to make the change that would appear on November's ballot should the House and Senate approve it.

The other bill McNamara proposed would use trunk highway bonds (and general obligation bonds if the constitutional amendment passes) to pay for the replacement of the Hastings bridge and 13 other bridges throughout Minnesota that are both fracture critical and functionally obsolete.

Both of McNamara's bills have been introduced but are still awaiting hearings at the committee level.

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