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Load study to determine fate of Big Bend bridge

BIG BEND -- Ripples from the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge last summer reached all the way to the hamlet of Big Bend in the northwestern corner of Chippewa County.

Since January, a small, steel truss bridge there has been closed following an inspection of it triggered by the I-35W bridge collapse. On a very busy day, maybe 20 cars and pickup trucks would cross the Big Bend Township bridge.

But for the handful of people who had relied on the bridge for their daily comings and goings, its closing has proven to be an inconvenience they'd love to see ended.

"I wish it would open, that's for sure,'' said Allen Larson, a resident of Big Bend.

The inability to use the bridge adds about two miles to travels that take him over the Chippewa River. For many, an alternative bridge across the river is located about one-fourth mile away.

Larson should learn in a few weeks time if his wish to reopen the bridge can be granted. Big Bend Township officials are waiting for the completion of a weight load study to determine if the township bridge can be reopened.

The study will be conducted by a private consulting firm for Chippewa County and Big Bend Township, according to Steve Kubista, highway engineer for Chippewa County. The less-than-favorable spring weather has delayed the study, he said.

The bridge was among hundreds inspected across the state last year following the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

The Big Bend bridge is a steel, high-truss bridge, and consequently was listed as among those that Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered inspected under an accelerated program.

The inspection found that support cables holding the Big Bend bridge were corroded. As a safety measure, the bridge was closed pending the completion of a load study.

State records show the bridge was erected in 1916, and its age alone is a reason for caution, Kubista said. He'd like to see it replaced due to its age and design.

The bridge is a narrow, single-lane span. It is also located at a sharp angle from the approaching road.

Kubista said there is a possibility that the study will find the bridge is able to carry three-ton loads. If so, it would be posted accordingly and local residents again could drive cars and pickup trucks over it.

But there is also the possibility that the study will indicate that the bridge needs to be removed. If so, the township would face the difficult financial decision of how to replace it. Kubista said its location over the Chippewa River means that it could be replaced only with a bridge. A less costly box culvert could not be placed there, he said.

Larson said he is hopeful that the bridge can continue to carry cars and pickup trucks. He noted that the township replaced the bridge deck about 20 years ago, and it has held up well.

More telling, he pointed out that the bridge endured both the floodwaters of 1997 and 2001. "Just like a champ,'' said Larson, who likened the old bridge to a mighty oak.

He watched the floodwaters come within inches of the bridge deck in both years.

Gravel and barricades have been placed on both the Chippewa and Swift County sides of the bridge to prevent motorized traffic over it.