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Railroad bridge nearing end of lifespan


A Minnesota Department of Transportation analysis of the two bridges linking Fort Frances with International Falls showed that the railroad one built back in 1908 only has 15-20 years left in it before it needs to be replaced at a cost of $8 million.

This information, along with other structural details on the second, newer bridge here, were revealed at a public meeting Tuesday morning at the Holiday Inn in the Falls.

On hand were Fort Frances Mayor Dan Onichuk, Falls Mayor Shawn Mason, and several representatives from Mn/DOT and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

In a report compiled at the request of the local Border Communities Organization, Mn/DOT concluded the old railroad bridge (Bridge 90249) “is nearing the end of its useful life.”

“The cumulative effects of age, road salts, and deterioration from Minnesota’s harsh climate unfortunately caused the bridge to have a finite life,” read the report.

“Past inspections document significant corrosion problems, some of which have been repaired, many of which have been painted over,” it continued.

“Experience with similar truss highway bridges tells us that pack rust, pitting, and loss of section to the extent reported in past inspection reports indicate the bridge has a very limited remaining service life before the need for planned and unplanned repairs limit use of the bridge to trucks and pedestrians, and continued repairs become impractical.”

“Looking at it as a bridge owner, that corrosion is a real concern,” said Mn/DOT state bridge engineer Dan Dorgan, who nonetheless added the “issues are fairly typical for a 98-year-old bridge.”

Dorgan estimated the remaining service life of the bridge to be 15-20 years, adding that if salt is used on the bridge (it currently is not), the expected lifespan could be further reduced.

He said the estimated cost to fix the bridge would be about $140,000 per year over the next 15 years, or $110,000 per year over the next 20.

After 20 years, a replacement railroad structure on a new alignment would have to be built, costing an estimated $8 million in today’s dollars.

Meanwhile, the other bridge (Bridge 36002), which was built in 1979, “is generally in good condition,” the report stated.

But Dorgan did note further investigation should be done to determine if the grout-filled jackets placed around steel H-piles will give protection from bacterial attack for the remaining service life of the bridge.

Until proven otherwise, a maintenance plan should consider pier replacement in the next 20 years.

As well, highway bridges are deigned to be structurally sufficient for about 75 years, but typically will require one deck replacement during that life.

The present deck is 26 years old, and recently received a low slump overlay which can be expected to extend the deck life another 15 or 20 years, after which the deck likely will need to be replaced, said Dorgan.

But design standards may require the bridge to be widened to provide a minimum shoulder width of five feet, which would require substructures to be widened.

The cost of widening and replacement options should be considered at that time, he added.

And the approach geometry also may need to be improved for traffic flow, said Dorgan. The building on the north side could be removed to allow direct entrance and exit from the bridge, eliminating a sharp “S” turn on the end of the railroad bypass canal span.

Approach geometry to the south is complicated by the close proximity of the U.S. Customs building, several railroad crossings, and need for queuing space.

Depending on the type of repairs for the piers, Mn/DOT estimated the annual maintenance cost for this second bridge to be in the $21,000-30,000 range for the next 20 years (not including any deck replacement issues).

The replacement deck options are estimated to cost $1.5 million for replacement to current width, $2 million for a widened bridge, and $5.9 million for a new structure in 20 years (these costs do not include any work for approaches and staging).

Dorgan stressed the current bridge owners—Boise Cascade and Abitibi-Consolidated—have not been negligent in the care of either of the bridges.

“I think the owners have done the best they can as responsible bridge owners,” he said.

As to what impact the cost to replace the railroad bridge will have on future decisions regarding the purchase of the international bridge remains to be seen, but it’s certainly something that will factor into discussions, Mayor Onichuk said after Tuesday’s meeting.

“It was a big surprise to see the lifespan of the old steel bridge is 15-20 years. The cost to replace that is obviously an issue,” he remarked. “And quite frankly, it makes it, in my mind, even more important of an issue to deal with right away.

“Let’s face it—if there’s a private guy out there and it happens to be the one we think it is, he’s got more money than you and I could dream of,” hinted Mayor Onichuk.

“Those issues won’t be an issue to him, but they definitely will be to the residents of Fort Frances, International Falls, Rainy River District, and Koochiching County.

“I was a little surprised at that,” he added. “I thought enough work had been done that it had another 50 years, but I was obviously wrong.”

Mayor Mason said she felt much the same after reading the report.

“My biggest concern is the older bridge, and the fact it would take $8 million of today’s dollars to replace it,” she remarked. “That was always the concern in my own mind.

“I know the bridge built in 1979 is a phenomenal structure, and I feel very confident about that one,” she added. “But it is the other bridge that is a little bit troubling to me at this point.”

Both mayors said the next step for the Border Communities Organization is to call a meeting with all potential stakeholders to discuss the report’s findings—and determine what direction to take.

“What we need to do next is to get a meeting going where we can get together the representatives from the Ontario and Canadian federal government, and their counterparts in the Minnesota and our federal government,” said Mayor Mason.

“Of course, we’re waiting for the Cabinet to be appointed in your neck of the woods,” she noted. “Once we have that, we don’t have any time to waste—we can’t wait too long.

“We have to meet and determine our next steps,” she stressed.

Mayor Mason said she’s not sure if that meeting will be a public one.

“If we’re seriously looking at different options to present to the Minnesota government or the federal government, we want to make sure that information is confidential.

“We do understand there may be another party interested in the bridge and certainly we don’t want our strategies to be public to the extent it would hurt our efforts,” she said.

“By the same token, as elected officials, we do have a public duty to ensure our citizens and our constituents are duly represented, and that we are transparent when working with them,” added Mayor Mason.

“I think our Border Communities Organization has to get together sooner than later and we need to plot out a very specific direction, engage our legal counsels, and engage the province and federal government,” agreed Mayor Onichuk.

“As you know, on our side, with the new federal government, there’s always a strawberry there. They’re talking about it in their ‘Blue Book’—about the whole issue of borders and Customs and all that.

“Let’s see how far we can take that,” he added.

Like Mayor Mason, Mayor Onichuk said he felt time was of the essence.

“I hope we can move forward relatively quickly. I don’t think we have two or three years to wade through this,” he warned.

“Right now, one of our stumbling blocks is Abitibi and Boise have not come up with the financial data for us to take a look at,” he remarked, referring to the fact the two companies have not yet retained a broker.

“Once that happens, we need to be ready to act on it,” he stressed. “We don’t need to have [the financial figures] and then figure out what we’re doing.

“We need to figure out what we’re doing now and when we get that information, act on it as quickly as possible.”

The International Bridge and Terminal Company and the Minnesota Dakota and Western Railway, along with their parent companies, Abitibi-Consolidated and Boise Cascade, announced the international bridge was for sale back on Nov. 3, saying it was not a core business asset.

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