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MnDOT: Bridge program improved

State Bridge Engineer Dan Dorgan, right, updates Minnesota House members on bridge inspection and review improvements the agency has implemented in recent months. With Dorgan is Duane Hill, a Duluth-based assistant engineer who helped with a beefed-up bridge inspection process. staff photo by Scott Wente

ST. PAUL - Transportation officials said they completed extensive statewide bridge inspections, planned to hire more engineers and improved the way bridge reviews are handled.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is moving beyond the stepped-up bridge inspections Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for and the agency completed following the August 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse, bridge experts told lawmakers Wednesday during a bridge program update.

They said inspectors two months ago completed field analyses of gusset plates on bridges of similar design to the Interstate 35W span, which investigators believe had inferior steel plates connecting critical bridge components. And as recently as last week, inspectors were reminded to look for another potential bridge problem.

Dan Dorgan, state bridge engineer, said MnDOT staff and local engineers inspected nearly 5,000 bridges following the Minneapolis bridge collapse - a process that resulted in some bridge repairs, closures and replacements - and made a number of improvements to its bridge inspection process.

Dorgan and Duane Hill, a Duluth-based assistant engineer, said those improvements include buying new inspection equipment to changing how employees handle reports so suggested repairs are not overlooked.

"We're trying to do things better," Hill said after testifying before the House Transportation Finance Division. "We listened to our critics. We've taken all this stuff seriously."

The agency's bridge-related actions satisfied transportation-minded lawmakers.

Rep. Bernie Lieder, transportation committee chairman, said MnDOT staff "finally got their things together" and made changes that were proposed after the 35W collapse.

Lieder, a Crookston DFLer and retired highway engineer, said he sees no need for major legislation dealing with bridge inspections during the 2009 legislative session. Bridge safety was a key issue in the Legislature's transportation funding debate earlier this year.

"The big problem they had was communication," Lieder said of how bridge inspection reports were shared among MnDOT staff. Bridge officials have improved that to include more written documentation and less oral communication.

"It seems like they've got a system in place," added Rep. Doug Magnus of Slayton, the committee's top Republican, who said the state now has a handle on its bridge inspections.

The Wednesday meeting came a day before the National Transportation Safety Board begins a two-day hearing on findings from its investigation into the cause of the 35W bridge collapse. Dorgan said his agency will be watching that closely "to determine if there's additional improvements MnDOT should be making."

The 2007 bridge collapse drew attention to MnDOT's bridge inspections, and a problem earlier this year put the program in the spotlight again.

In July, a chunk of concrete fell from the underside of a St. Paul bridge and damaged passing vehicles, an incident Dorgan said never should have occurred. Since then, he said, the department reminded bridge inspectors three times - including last week - to look for pieces of concrete or other material that could fall from other bridges.

As a result, material that could have fallen was removed from 18 bridges around the state. The list of bridges was not available Wednesday, but Hill suggested MnDOT post that information on its Web site.

Following a critical review of MnDOT earlier this year by an independent auditor, the agency increased by eight engineers its team handling inspections of structurally flawed bridges.

However, Dorgan said, the agency is having trouble filling three of the engineer positions. Some applicants were not qualified, and other possible applicants may be turned away because of the salary offered or the working conditions. Engineers spend much of their time outside.

Dorgan said the agency may turn to recent college graduates, who would work under skilled engineers for a time before earning their own certification.

While those positions are unfilled, the agency is contracting with consultants to complete the work. No bridge inspections have been delayed because of the open positions, Hill said.