Milan Bridge in Minnesota: A Bridge Unwanted

Photo taken in December, 2010

Sometimes it takes courage and sacrifice to get a photo of a jewel like this bridge. When visiting the Milan Bridge in Lac Que Parle County, Minnesota, in December 2010, I had the lovely experience of photographing this bridge in crystal clear sunlight. However, it almost came at a price when leaving to head north to Little Falls, when my mini SUV almost got stuck in the snow while leaving the boat ramp located next to the bridge. Yet when looking at the situation the bridge is in right now, there are no regrets that I took the time to photograph this bridge, despite the fact that when it was taken, a strong storm system was to move in a couple hours later, bringing ice, snow and high winds, thus making travel anywhere dangerous…..

The Milan Bridge is one of only 29 historic bridges left in Minnesota that is being looked after by the state’s department of transportation (MnDOT). The bridge was built by the Theodore Jensen Construction Company of Des Moines, Iowa in 1938, replacing an earlier truss bridge, a Pratt through truss type, that had been built in 1901 by the American Bridge Company but was relocated when this bridge came in. The steel for the truss superstructure was provided by the Minneapolis-Moline Steel Company. Originally, the bridge had Howe lattice portal bracings to go along with the rest of the structure, a parker through truss bridge with riveted connections and concrete approach spans. The portals were raised by cutting off the lower half and encasing the upper half in steel in 1967, thus making the vertical clearance of 16 feet. The bridge intself is longer than its predecessor- 210 feet long with a 17 foot roadway width.

Milan Bridge at the time of its completion in 1938. Photo taken by MnDOT
Milan Bridge at the time of its completion in 1938. Photo taken by MnDOT

The construction of the bridge was part of the Works Progress Administration project, initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 with the goals of improving the infrastructure throughout America and getting many of the 33% unemployed Americans back into the workforce. The construction of the bridge was part of the plan to improve the flood plain area along the Minnesota River, which included the creation of Lac Que Parle Lake by damming the river near Appleton. This happened in 1939, shortly after the bridge was built.  Minnesota Hwy. 40 was supposed to be a key link between Milan and Madison (going west to South Dakota), yet in comparison with the other highways crossing the Minnesota River (US 12  to the north and US 212 to the south), the number of vehicles crossing at this location is punitive because of the proximity of the highways to the nearest cities with more inhabitants than the towns Hwy. 40 connects. US 12 connects Minneapolis with Aberdeen, South Dakota, but crosses the river at Ortonville. Hwy. 212, which crosses at Montevideo, also starts in the Twin Cities but heads west to Watertown, also in South Dakota. There is also MN Hwy. 119, whose crossing is located south of Appleton but north of the bridge at Milan.

This leads to the situation that the bridge is currently in. MnDOT plans to rehabilitate the bridge by replacing the decking, repairing some truss parts and repainting the entire superstructure, which is currently blue but the paint has peeled off. It was supposed to begin this year, but a petition by local residents put a halt to the plans, at least temporarily. This task force wants the bridge to be replaced in its entirety because it does not meet the current needs and is structurally deficient. This is a rare case where a state, which owns the historic bridge, wants to prolong the structure but residents don’t want that. Their concerns were addressed in April prompting the state agency to hit pause and table the decision until April 2016. According to federal law, because the bridge is located in a historic district like Lac Que Parle, “…the state to rehabilitate rather than replace historic structures, unless there is “’no feasible and prudent alternative.’’’   Little does the task force realizes is that the cost for rehabilitating the bridge is estimated to be between $2.3 and 3 million, half the amount needed to replace the bridge. In addition, there is no guarantee if and when funding would be available for replacing the bridge, let alone when construction would begin on the bridge.

Originally, had there not been any objections, rehabilitation would have begun in November and been completed by the spring. Now with opposition to the project being brought forward, the decision of whether MnDOT to proceed with the rehabilitation will come in the spring. It is more of a question of whether it makes sense to wait until earliest 2020 to replace a bridge that takes between 300 and 600 cars a day- a third of the amount of its neighboring highway crossings at US 12 and 212, or simply proceed and ask residents to consider alternatives. This includes using alternative crossings or even lightening the load and size before crossing the bridge. Given the crossing’s proximity, sometimes just allowing for a small fix on a landmark destined to be a National Register monument is worth the price. And alternatives can in the long term save more money than having to spend more on a new bridge, whose lifespan is half of what bridges, like this one has. The average life of a concrete bridge is approxinately 35-40 years, while the current Milan Bridge is turning 78 years old this year. Most truss bridges can live twice as long if properly maintained- a logical conclusion that is being taken into account for rehabbing the bridge.

So what option would you favor: spending excessive amounts of money for a concrete bridge that is wider and has no clearance, but has a lifespan of 40 years, or rehabilitate the current bridge, prolonging it for 60-80 years and having travellers with wide loads use other crossings? Look at the map and then think about it. The Chronicles will keep you posted on the latest and will inform you when the decision is made…..

milan bridge2
Photo by MnDOT in 1938
Portal view with current weight limit. Photo taken in December 2010

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