Cross-posted from streets.mn: The Fall and Rise of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge – Part 7: Replacement
The replacement bridge cost $251 million, funded almost entirely by federal government. We can debate whether the federal government should have paid for it (it was originally built with 90 percent federal contributions, 10 percent state, but matches recently are much more balanced), since most traffic using the Bridge both originated in and is destined for Minnesota. With Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar then Chair of the House Transportation Committee, there was plenty of political support behind this.
The replacement bridge was hurried, completed by September 2008, several months ahead of the original schedule. This is good, a lack of a bridge costs the economy. (Xie and Levinson estimated between $127,000 and $170,000 per day, MnDOT estimated $400,000 per day). The contractor received $200,000 per day bonus for early completion. So perhaps in an economic sense, too much was paid to complete it a few months early.
Rebuilding a collapsed bridge is of course a crisis, but it is also an opportunity to do something interesting. Rushing designs may mean that ideas are missed. What was built is a functional bridge, and there are state-of-the-art real-time structural health monitoring systems installed, so I have no fear driving over it. It was also ensured that the Bridge would be compatible with any future light-rail transit lines, though none are planned for this bridge (and how they would transition from the center of the Bridge to any reasonable destination is extremely unclear). But could more have been done?
The snow removal and icing problem was not considered. Minnesota is famous for its winters. The previous I-35W bridge had installed a de-icing system (in response to earlier crashes), which had been speculated to be responsible for corrosion of the structure. While the NTSB did not find that, de-icing chemicals do have environmental consequences.
A solution not considered was air rights. A bridge over the Mississippi is expensive. But imagine having a 2 or 3 story office building hanging from below, and/or built above the highway. The views from the River are fantastic. It will not impair other views of the river especially much, and would generate a significant amount of revenue to pay for reconstruction. One example would be the historic London Bridge, which had houses and stores along the side, encroaching on travelways. There are better ways to combine transportation arteries with development opportunities, and creative design can show the way.
Why did we not build a habitable structure above the road deck, so that offices, residences, hotels, etc. could share the view? It would have increased the profile of the Bridge by two stories, but created an enormous amount of leasable space, leases which could have paid for themselves and the Bridge. Obviously it would increase the initial construction cost, and perhaps time, but that would be amply repaid over the long-term. That structure would further have shielded the roadway from ice and snow, reducing road snow clearance costs and crashes.
The bridge opened in the early darkness of September 18, 2008. A parade of first responders, and then a bulge of traffic all hoping to be the first (and none succeeding) went across. Soon the Bridge was attracting 120,000 vehicles per day, measurably off the pre-collapse levels.