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Wakota Bridge timeline moved forward by three months

The second span of the Wakota Bridge should be open in July of 2010, a few months earlier than recently stated, a Minnesota Department of Transportation official told legislators at a Minnesota House Commerce and Labor Committee hearing Tuesday.

MnDOT Deputy Commissioner and Chief Engineer Khani Sahebjam said it is impossible to move the project any faster because the bridge is being cast in place. The new 35W Bridge was pre-cast offsite, and then the pieces were hauled in, allowing for a shorter construction period, he said.

"At this point, you cannot switch to that type of construction because it requires redesign and further delay," he said.

While the eastbound span will open in July of 2010, there will be ongoing construction activity on the bridge through fall, which could mean lane closures, said Scott McBride, MnDOT district engineer.

MnDOT officials also reported that they've reached a settlement agreement with HNTB, the consulting firm whose flawed design delayed the project. The westbound span of the bridge had to be retrofitted after MnDOT discovered cracking in the concrete. Both spans of the bridge were originally scheduled to be complete in 2008.

The firm agreed to pay the state a $20 million settlement, which Sahebjam said should be deposited in the state's trunk highway account by the end of the year.

"We are committed to spend some of the dollars in the region, in the area of those who have been impacted most (by the construction delays)," Sahebjam said.

Newport mayor-elect Tim Geraghty told the committee and MnDOT he'd like to see some of that money directed to Newport.

"My guess is that 80 percent of the work has been done in Newport and we have been devastated economically," Geraghty said. "The delays have cost the city of Newport dearly. I would gladly accept any of the $20 million as economic stimulus."

Geraghty also questioned the structural integrity of the westbound span. He said while door-knocking in his mayoral campaign, many residents told him they were concerned about the bridge, which was originally constructed using the faulty design.

MnDOT bridge engineer Dan Dorgan said the cracks discovered in the westbound span did not cause safety concerns so much as concerns about whether the bridge would last for 75 to 100 years. MnDOT went through the lengthy process of retrofitting the bridge to ensure that it would serve out its expected lifespan, he said.

"I am confident it will give us that," he said.

Another construction project, an expansion of Interstate 494 to three lanes between the Wakota Bridge and Interstate 94 is also expected to be complete in July of 2010, McBride said.