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Officials warned NAFTA trucks threatened bridge

Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis after collapse Wednesday (Courtesy St. Paul Pioneer Press)

Public officials in Minnesota had been warned that increasing truck traffic from international trade was placing an undue stress on the state’s transportation infrastructure, including specific warnings concerning the now-collapsed bridge over the Mississippi on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis.

As WND reported, a Federal Highway Administration study begun in 1998 warned increased NAFTA truck traffic would endanger Minnesota bridges along I-35.

A separate study by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, or MNDOT, published in May 2005 – a “Minnesota Statewide Freight Plan” – identified the need to improve bridge and pavement deficiencies affecting trucks.

The MNDOT website also archives a June 2006 “Fractural Critical Bridge Study” that recommended replacing Bridge #9340 (“Squirt Bridge”), the now collapsed span on I-35W in Minneapolis.

Before collapsing, the bridge was not under any restrictions, despite multiple reports of deficiencies. Overweight trucks were permitted to carry loads of up to 136,000 pounds on the interstate.

Estimates are that the collapsed I-35W bridge carried 144,000 vehicles per day, including 4,760 commercial vehicles.

Internal documents from MNDOT and the Dallas-based trade organization NASCO – North America’s Supercorridor Coalition – show the Minnesota agency joined NASCO to help deal with the strain NAFTA and other world trade freight loads were placing on the state’s I-35 infrastructure, including support to repair the Minneapolis bridge.

In a Feb. 15, 2006, letter, Abigail McKenzie, director of the MNDOT Office of Investment Management, wrote to Melvin identifying a list of approximately 100 MNDOT requests for NASCO to assist with finding funding for the years 2007-14, including a request for $3 million to “replace overlay, joints, repair anti-icing, etc.” on the I-35W bridge.

A July 19, 2006, memo written by Brad Larsen, MNDOT federal relations manager, to the MNDOT division directors stressed several benefits of joining NASCO, including the possibility of help to lobby for additional discretionary federal highway funds.

Larson’s letter also pointed out NASCO state membership typically cost $50,000 a year, but NASCO had allowed Oklahoma to join for $25,000, and Larson believed he could get a special exemption allowing Minnesota to join NASCO for only $15,000 a year.

To further induce MNDOT to join, Larsen noted NASCO’s executive director, Tiffany Melvin, had offered MNDOT two positions on the NASCO board of directors.

A Dec. 16, 2006 letter from Melvin to MNDOT acknowledged receiving MNDOT $15,000 fee to become a NASCO member.

The file indicates MNDOT internal support to join NASCO was far from universal.

In a March 7, 2006, memo, Robert Gale, an MNDOT planner, wrote, “I do not see that Mn/DOT has much, if anything, to gain by giving these people $50,000 or $25,000 or anything for that matter.” He continued, “I would say we should save the state’s money for more worthwhile endeavors than this group has to offer.”

There is no record in the file that NASCO was ever able to assist MNDOT with the $3 million request to repair the I-35W bridge.

International trade dramatically increases traffic

Truck traffic carries the vast majority of international trade. According to the FHWA, in 2002, trucks carried 797 million tons of international shipments, valued at approximately $1.2 trillion. By 2035, trucks are projected to carry 2.1 billion tons of international freight, valued at approximately $6.2 trillion.

By contrast, rail, the second largest carrier of international freight, is expected to grow from 200 million tons in 2002 to 397 million tons in 2025. The value of international shipments carried by rail is projected to grow from $114 billion in 2002 to $275 billion in 2035.

The FHWA estimates Minnesota is experiencing what is expected to be an 84.3 percent increase in truck tonnage on the state’s highways from 1998 to 2020.

FHWA reports leave no doubt truck traffic is particularly damaging to U.S. bridge and highway infrastructure and that international trade is projected to increase traffic dramatically on U.S. highways.

The FHWA estimates trucks are responsible for 40 percent of FHWA program costs but account for less than 10 percent of total vehicle miles traveled.

A frequently cited road test conducted by the American Association of State Highway Officials established that it takes 9,600 cars to cause the road damage caused by one fully-loaded, 80,000-pound truck.

Even though subsequent research has refined the estimate, the overall disproportionate road damage by heavily loaded trucks, including damage to bridges, is well established.

With growing truck traffic carrying more international trade, the FHWA concludes, “Clearly, more traffic is moving over essentially the same infrastructure.”

Between 1980 and 2002, the FHWA reports truck travel grew by more than 90 percent, while lane-miles of public roads increased by only 5 percent.

The FHWA openly admits, “The creation of NAFTA has fostered north-south traffic, placing more demands on the domestic transportation system.”

As WND has reported, the importance of international trade to I-35 has resulted in the interstate being designated as the “NAFTA Superhighway,” even by prominent trade associations such as NASCO.

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