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2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse offers lessons for swift Baltimore rebuild


A second temporary channel has been opened in the Port of Baltimore following last week's collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The disaster reminded many in Minnesota of the 35W collapse in Minneapolis nearly 17 years ago. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker has more on lessons that tragedy might offer for Baltimore.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: It was August 1, 2007. Adam Noe was in his friend's car, driving home from work. They were stuck in traffic and had just started across the I-35W bridge, a major artery through downtown.

ADAM NOE: I heard this loud bang - loudest noise I've ever heard. Then we just looked ahead, and the bridge started to collapse.

KRAKER: They scrambled out of the car, and they slid about 60 yards down the tilted slab of concrete to safety. Lindsay Walz wasn't so lucky. She also was on the bridge, but she fell into the river. When she saw footage of the Baltimore Bridge collapse...

LINDSAY WALZ: I went straight back in my body to being underwater in the Mississippi. I immediately kind of went into their shoes in a way that a lot of people probably can't imagine.

KRAKER: Walz says she has flashbacks of the trauma she experienced, and not just in her mind.

WALZ: As I saw the bridge collapsing, I felt that fall in my body, and then I also felt the pressure of the water that my body felt on August 1. My body just remembers those things in this very challenging way.

KRAKER: Walz spent five months in the hospital, healing from a broken back. She says the emotional recovery is still ongoing. She was one of nearly 150 people injured in the collapse. Thirteen people died. Afterwards, Tim Pawlenty, who was governor at the time, recalls an avalanche of activity all at once. The wreckage was removed. There was grieving for the victims. An investigation eventually determined the bridge collapsed because of an original design flaw dating back to the 1960s, and Pawlenty says they immediately began planning to rebuild the bridge.

TIM PAWLENTY: And the main reason for that having to move quickly is because, in a place like I-35W bridge - or in this case in Baltimore - you can't have that bridge out very long without having dramatic economic impacts for the state, for the region and potentially for the nation.

KRAKER: Minnesota transportation officials say it would typically take at least six years to design, permit and build a bridge of that complexity. Officials haven't given an estimate yet on how long it will take to rebuild the bridge in Baltimore - only that it won't be quick, easy or cheap. University of Minnesota economics professor Christopher Phelan says, in Minneapolis, incentives were key to speeding up construction.

CHRISTOPHER PHELAN: They simply said to the companies, "every day you're late, you owe us $200,000." And the other thing they said is, "every day you're early, we're going to give you up to $27 million extra."

KRAKER: Crews worked around the clock on nights and weekends. Phelan says a lot of red tape was also cut. Here's former governor Pawlenty again.

PAWLENTY: It wasn't that standards were compromised. It's just the expectations around how long these reviews would take were all accelerated and prioritized, and that made a huge difference.

KRAKER: In the end, Pawlenty says the bridge was built, start to finish, in about 13 months.

PAWLENTY: Which is almost unheard of with large infrastructure projects these days.

KRAKER: Another critical ingredient, of course, was money. A few days after the collapse, Congress appropriated $250 million to help rebuild the bridge. In addition to the tragic loss of life, the collapse of the bridge in Baltimore closed an important shipping channel, and officials say they're trying to do everything to reopen that port. President Biden says he intends for the federal government to fund the reconstruction of the Baltimore bridge. It's an open question whether Congress, this time, will go along.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in Minnesota.

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Dan Kracker