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MnDOT still rebuilding image

ST. PAUL -- Bodies of Minneapolis bridge collapse victims were still in the Mississippi River last Aug. 2 when inspectors were ordered to give all state bridges another look.

In the weeks and months that followed, thousands of state and local bridges were inspected, some spans were closed, a long-simmering transportation funding battle at the state Capitol overflowed, multiple investigations looked into the bridge collapse and into the Minnesota Department of Transportation -- and lawmakers fired the agency's chief.

MnDOT officials say they have taken a number of steps to help regain trust in the agency's ability to keep Minnesota's roads and bridges safe, but one year after the bridge collapsed, they still face questioning about the safety of other bridges around the state.

"After the collapse, it is hard for motorists not to be thinking of that," said Dan Dorgan, MnDOT's state bridge engineer. "It's going to take time for the Department of Transportation to rebuild that confidence with the public, but in the meantime we are taking all the actions we believe are necessary ... to ensure safety."

Tom Sorel, MnDOT's new commissioner, said three high-profile bridge closures -- one permanent, two temporary -- earlier this year were examples of the agency's aggressive oversight and its response to new bridge design theories.

"We erred on the side of caution, and I think that is an indication that we're here to provide for public safety," said Sorel, a former federal transportation official.

But the department's fragile image took another hit leading up to today's one-year anniversary of the collapse that killed 13 and injured more than 140. Just days ago, a large chunk of concrete fell from a bridge onto busy Interstate 35E in St. Paul, damaging two vehicles. There were no reported injuries.

Any bridge inspection that concludes there is a possibility that concrete could break off should prompt an immediate repair, Sorel said. MnDOT officials say they are looking into why the St. Paul incident occurred, but cannot rule out similar problems in the future.

"In the engineering world, we know that happens," Sorel said, citing aging concrete and harsh weather. "Now, that doesn't mean it's acceptable. We can't have pieces of concrete falling on the public as they're driving on our roads."

Even as transportation officials vouch for the safety of Minnesota bridges and roads, new national reports point to problems with one-fourth of all the nation's bridges. An Associated Press examination found that most states have taken little action to fix their worst bridges in the 12 months since the Minneapolis bridge collapse.

The Interstate 35W bridge collapse offered a glimpse of transportation infrastructure problems across the country, said Jack Schenendorf, who helped lead a congressional commission that explored the state of roads and bridges and concluded there are considerable infrastructure problems.

"We are at a crossroads," Schenendorf said. "If we continue business as usual, then we're going to see more bridges collapse, more bridges close and we're going to be seeing more gridlock."

On the eve of the bridge collapse anniversary, Schenendorf appeared at a Minneapolis news conference with bridge builders to decry the condition of infrastructure and call for more spending on roads and bridges.

They said Minnesota is not an exception, even though lawmakers earlier this year passed new transportation funding.

The National Transportation Safety Board still is investigating the cause of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, but is looking at design flaws, including steel gusset plates connecting major bridge elements.

The national board's focus on gusset plates is prompting experts to look at those steel connector plates differently, including in Minnesota. That is the reason three bridges were closed for repairs or replacement earlier this year, Sorel said. There were concerns about the gusset plates on steel-truss bridges in St. Cloud, Winona and Duluth.

"It's a reflection of the change in culture and accountability," said Sorel, who replaced Carol Molnau. Molnau remains the elected lieutenant governor.

While much of the focus has been on state bridges, Minnesota has more than 13,000 bridges, including county, township and city bridges.

There is more attention to bridge safety since the collapse, but counties have not dramatically altered the way they inspect and maintain their bridges, said Dave Robley, president of the Minnesota County Engineers Association.

Robley, Douglas County's engineer, said counties' bridge inspection and maintenance process generally has had a good reputation, but the public's concerns did not stop with state transportation officials.

"I'm not sure if the public truly knows the difference and understands the difference," Robley said, "but I certainly think they want to have that assurance that it's safe at all levels."

"It takes a long time to build up that trust and it only takes one event to lose that public trust," he added.