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Hastings Bridge Coalition forming

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The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

If the old saying is true, it seems the stakeholders in the Hastings Bridge are getting serious about squeaking.

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In 1989, the Metropolitan Council identified a list of bridges that were in need of replacement. At that time, both the Hastings Bridge and Stillwater Lift Bridge had poorer ratings than the Wakota Bridge in Newport, yet it was the replacement of the Wakota Bridge that got started first.

How?

Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson said it's thanks to the work of the Wakota Bridge Coalition, a 40-member group made up of city, county and state officials; elected officials; and business and community members. The group worked closely with representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. They came together and formed a solid voice in advocating for the bridge's replacement. Peterson is the legislative director of the group.

The question that was in front of the Hastings-area's city, county and state officials; elected officials; MnDOT representatives; and business owners recently at Hastings City Hall was: Could something like the Wakota Bridge Coalition work for the Hastings Bridge?

"We need a more cohesive group of people who are going to push at the state and federal levels for faster completion of the bridge replacement and to make sure the bridge's new design meets the needs of the community," District 57 Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said.

MnDOT Metro District Engineer Khani Sahebjam agreed.

"The best way to get (a new bridge) the fastest is to have advocacy," he said.

That's not to say city officials have been silent on the issue. Among other efforts, Mayor Paul Hicks went to Washington D.C. in September to lobby Minnesota's congressional delegation on getting a new bridge in Hastings. However, it seems the idea behind a possible Hastings Bridge Coalition is to have a unified voice with all the stakeholders involved.

The first time the Wakota Bridge Coalition met was in 1992. They incorporated in 1993, wrote their bylaws and selected leaders from amongst the group.

They got the Wakota bridge replacement project going by keeping pressure on MnDOT and the state and federal legislatures to get funding for the bridge and keep it a priority.

They also act as an intermediary between the general public, state Legislature, congress, communities with vested interests in the Wakota bridge and MnDOT.

"You need one voice coming from the coalition (with) the same message," Peterson said. "That's how you build bridges in this state. The squeaky wheel gets the grease."

The schedule -

for now

Replacement of the Hastings bridge is tentatively scheduled for the "early years" of a long-term MnDOT planning period that runs from 2015 to 2023. Right now cost estimates for a new, standard, freeway-style bridge are around $98 million. The actual cost of the new bridge won't be known until a feasibility and scoping study is completed at the end of 2008 that will look at different bridge types and their environmental, engineering and navigational elements.

"It ($98 million) is a rough cost for use in planning-level documents," South Metro Area Engineer Ken Johnson said. "Different bridge types will have different costs and the feasibility and scoping study will give cost estimates for the different bridge types."

In January 2007, MnDOT representatives met with Hastings city officials and laid out a timeline for the replacement of the Hastings bridge. At that time they said the traffic model and feasibility study would be completed in March 2008, Mayor Paul Hicks said.

Monday, however, MnDOT Metro District South Area Manager Lynn Clarkowski said the traffic model study is still being reviewed by MnDOT, and requests for proposals for the feasibility study are going out soon. Clarkowski said those studies would be done by December 2008.

Once those are done, an environmental assessment that will take between 18 months and two years needs to be completed, during which preliminary design work can start.

Regulations limit when rights of way can be purchased for the footprint of the new bridge. That step would come next, and it will take about two years to secure all the land needed for the new bridge.

The letting of the project for bids and selection of a contractor will take 15 weeks once all the land is secured. Actual construction of the bridge will take between two and four years, depending on the complexity of the project.

Some of this work could overlap, especially if the "design/build process" is utilized, which is when construction begins before the design plans are complete, a process currently being used on the rebuilding of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

That schedule won't matter, however, if there's no funding available to build the bridge.

"After all that work, it's still about having enough money and (the bridge) being a priority," Hastings City Council Member Danna Elling Schultz said.

That is exactly where the Hastings Bridge Coalition would come in.

Could it work here?

Hicks is disappointed with the delays in the traffic model and feasibility study he's seen since a schedule was presented to Hastings city officials a year ago.

"The way I see it is we're already eight months behind," Hicks said. "That's why we need a coalition."

Elling Schultz said she believes a Hastings Bridge Coalition could be effective in getting the bridge replaced faster. The problems the Wakota bridge is facing today, like a lack of funding to complete the project, among others, are separate from what the Wakota Bridge Coalition went through to get the project off the ground.

"It worked for them despite the problems they're having now," she said.

What a Hastings Bridge Coalition could do, Elling Schultz said, is put pressure on state and federal legislators, and MnDOT to keep the Hastings bridge replacement high on an ever-growing list of transportation priorities.

According to a report published by the Minnesota Urban Land Institute, MnDOT's metro district (which includes Hastings) needs $26.5 billion by 2030, or $1.5 billion per year, to maintain roads and bridges and invest in transit. At current investment levels, MnDOT has about $330 million per year available, with another $185 million to be added each year from the recently passed Minnesota Vehicle Sales Tax bill. This leaves the MnDOT metro district with an annual shortfall of about $984 million in transportation and transit investments. With those numbers, it's easy to see the competition the Hastings bridge is up against.

Aside from keeping pressure on congress, the state legislature and MnDOT, a Hastings Bridge Coalition could be a voice for the community and could act as an intermediary between the general public, MnDOT and the state and federal legislatures.

For example, when businesses in Newport were having trouble getting people to their stores during the Wakota bridge construction, it was the Wakota Bridge Coalition that worked with MnDOT to get better signage directing drivers to various businesses in Newport.

District 28 Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, is the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and said he comes into contact with representatives from groups like the Wakota Bridge Coalition all the time.

"They all bring unique perspectives and some much needed flavor to the discussion," Murphy said. "Because (elected officials) can't get out and visit every one of these places and know what the locals know, it's arrogant on the part of legislators and the governor to pretend they know everything."

Murphy added that oftentimes, organized groups have the ability and resources to do more research, which allows them to come to MnDOT with facts pertaining to their concerns over issues like the economic impacts of a project.

For District 57B Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, it's about time something happened to bring the Hastings bridge to the forefront of the debate over transportation funding.

"For the last 20 years, this has been an all or nothing issue, and we've got nothing," McNamara said.

Next steps

In late January, a smaller group consisting of Hicks, Peterson, Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce President Michelle Jacobs and others met to review the Wakota Bridge Coalition's bylaws and learn about how the group organized back in 1992.

In early March the small group will come back to a meeting of the full group and report on how to best organize into a formal Hastings Bridge Coalition.

Peterson said one key component as the group moves forward is the involvement of the public.

"The most successful things are those where you have a lot of folks involved with the project," Peterson said. "You can't have Rivertown Days with five volunteers; you need hundreds of people."

Through the Wakota Bridge Coalition, the public helped decide things like the design and location of the bridge, Peterson said.

The most important piece of the puzzle, however, for potential coalition members and the public, Peterson said, is making sure funding is there for the project.

"The one thing the public has to understand is that even if the coalition gets going, you still have to have the revenue to build the dang thing," she said.

Keith Grauman can be reached at kgrauman@hastingsstargazette.com.

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