December 3, 2008
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Triumph of will: grit, innovation mark 2008 construction season

By Craig Wilkins

New Silverdale Bridge

A new bridge carries Hwy 65 over the Little Fork River near Silverdale in Koochiching County. The new span replaces a wrought-iron truss bridge built 130 years ago in Sauk Centre. The old bridge will move a couple of hundred miles south to a park in Washington County. Photo by John Bray

2008 closed a memorable construction season, marked by completion of the new Interstate 35W St. Anthony Bridge in only 11 months after the project began.

The new bridge replaces the old span, which collapsed Aug. 1, 2007.

The intensity of the work, innovative techniques and its quick completion earned renown for its builders, brought a degree of closure after the tragedy and restored a vital transportation artery.

In an editorial, Engineering News-Record described the bridge’s rapid completion as “willpower under duress,” lauding its technical innovations and high degree of public involvement.

Though unique, construction of the I-35W bridge reflects practices now becoming standard—the design-build process, technical innovation and working closely with partners, such as business communities, through each phase of planning and construction.

These practices and others enabled Mn/DOT to complete 240 projects this year valued at more than $1.8 billion.

“Our construction people did what was asked of them and then some,” said Tom Ravn, Construction and Innovative Contracting director.

“District construction people showed their mettle from the I-35W bridge to rebuilding Hwy 10 in Detroit Lakes a year earlier than planned,” he said. “It was a good year.”

New bridges were built in locations ranging from a remote area in District 1 to the Hwy 169 corridor at Le Sueur in District 7.

The new bridge over the Little Fork River at Silverdale in Koochiching County replaces a 130-year-old wrought-iron truss structure. The wooden-decked bridge will have a new life carrying cyclists and pedestrians a couple of hundred miles south in a Washington County park.

The twin-span bridge over the Minnesota River at Le Sueur replaces the structure built in 1958. The project includes wider lanes and safety improvements at the Hwy 169/Hwy 93 interchange.

Mn/DOT’s use of roundabouts continued to expand in 2008. Five were constructed in 2008, bringing the number on state highways to 13.

District 8 built two roundabouts on Hwy 7. They are part of 22-mile improvement project that also included turn lanes, passing lanes and pavement resurfacing between Silver Lake and St. Bonifacius.

The district also rebuilt a section of Hwy 7 in Montevideo. The project added frontage roads as well as new lighting and signals.

Southern Minnesota

Hwy 169 bridge in Le Sueur

Trucks and other traffic roll across the new Hwy 169 bridge in Le Sueur. The twin spans, each with seven arches, increase capacity and improve safety at interchanges on each end of the bridge. Photo by Jeff Swenson

Adjacent districts in southern Minnesota also finished several significant projects.

District 7 reconstructed five miles of Hwy 60 to a four-lane design. Known as the Bigelow Bypass, the project includes two miles of roadway in Iowa and three in Minnesota.  

At District 6, one project involved deconstruction rather than building.

A towering bluff on Hwy 14 near Lewiston was cut back to prevent rock and other debris from falling onto the highway. Crews removed about 200,000 cubic yards of rock to complete the project.

A milling machine was used to scrape rock from the block until rock hardness required blasting.

Other projects include restoring a section of Hwy 76 destroyed by floods and rebuilding the Hwy 16/Hwy 61 interchange near La Crescent. The new interchange will improve traffic flow and safety.

The district also completed rebuilding a 4.2-mile segment of Hwy 52 in Oronoco. It includes frontage roads to ensure safe access to local highways and several access control measures as well.

Twin Cities area

In addition to the new I-35W bridge, several other projects will have a major effect on vehicle travel in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

  • The long-anticipated “Unweave the Weave” project was completed in August. The project separates the once-conjoined sections of I-94 and I-35E, eliminating a major bottleneck in the region’s freeway system.
  • On the region’s southwest side, construction of Hwy 212 on 12 miles of new alignment adds much-needed capacity for commuters and commercial truck traffic in the rapidly growing area. Hennepin and Carver counties will take ownership of the old roadbed next spring.
  • Another achievement this year was the building of a section of Hwy 12 on new alignment in Long Lake and Orono.

Central, northern Minnesota projects

Hwy 10 near Big Detroit Lake

Hwy 10 curves around Big Detroit Lake on new alignment in the city of Detroit Lakes. The parallel rail line was also moved to allow improvements, such as an underpass and cutting the number of accesses on the three-mile route from 70 to 7. Photo courtesy of HNTB

Mn/DOT’s northern districts completed several significant projects. Many of the completions will add vitality and reduce congestion in downtown areas throughout the region. They include:

  • Hwy 34 in Park Rapids—The District 2 project included new lanes, lighting, traffic signals and other improvements.
  • Hwy 12 in Delano—District 3 completed the project that includes a new bridge over the South Fork of the Crow River, added a center turn lane, new retaining walls and new traffic signals.  
  • Hwy 10 in Detroit Lakes—The District 4 project, known locally as “Connect Detroit Lakes,” does just that on three miles of new construction on new alignment. The alignment parallels the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail line and required close monitoring to avoid disturbing the rail bed during construction.
  • Hwy 2 and Hwy 169 in Grand Rapids—This District 1 project reduces congestion and improves traffic in the city. The project included grading, new surfacing, lighting, streetscaping and new traffic signals.

Reviewing the 2008 season, Deputy Commissioner Khani Sahebjam said, “I think Engineering News-Record expressed it well. We were under terrific stress and constant scrutiny, most notably on the I-35W bridge, but we didn’t lose our confidence. We delivered the I-35W bridge project ahead of schedule, which was a first step toward rebuilding public trust.

“It was a difficult year, but a very rewarding one,” he said.


On the job: Jan Ekern brings Mn/DOT, partners together

By Lisa Yang

3 people in a meeting

Beryl Board, Metro District (left), Jan Ekern, Office of Maintenance, and Rick Morey, Engineering Services, participate in a recent Diversity Council meeting. Photo by Lisa Yang

Jan Ekern has spent her past 25 years bridging communication gaps and building relationships between Mn/DOT and some of its partners, including the general public and motorists.

Ekern, partnerships coordinator in the Office of Maintenance, was hired in 1983. Mn/DOT had one of the best highway programming processes in the country, and Ekern was hired to document how Mn/DOT made decisions to select which projects to fund and when to fund them.

Later, she worked as a public affairs coordinator for the Program Management Division, where she dealt with reporters, communicated with the public and businesses, and wrote articles for the employee newsletter.

Ekern was the face of Mn/DOT when Interstate 94 in the Twin Cities was going to be rebuilt in 1987-88, which included reconstructing the corridor between the two downtowns. Residents, drivers and businesses in that area were against the project, and Ekern worked with them to help resolve issues.

After a short stint at the Department of Administration, Ekern returned to Mn/DOT and began her current position. She started the Adopt a Highway program and became its program administrator, and is also in charge of the highway logo signs program.

Ekern spends at least half of her time writing, editing and reviewing partnership agreements—the legal agreements that allow Mn/DOT to give and receive help from cities, counties and other state agencies.

What is your current role at Mn/DOT?

I have three distinct roles, and each is very different and has a lot of variety. With partnerships, I find that my role is finding a way to connect lawyers and engineers. With Adopt a Highway and the logo sign program, I’m getting Mn/DOT partnered up with the public. Each program provides excellent value at no or low cost to Mn/DOT. The Adopt a Highway program, for example, provides about $5 million in volunteer labor each year.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Saying “no” to people who want their business to be on highway logo signs. It’s hard because they really want to have their business or church on the sign, and you don’t want them to feel rejected. You want them to feel like someone paid attention to their request and that they were considered.

What is most important when it comes to Mn/DOT and its partners?

I think the face-to-face effort is a key component to communicating with our partners, especially the public. Also, not just talking or listening to their suggestions, but taking them seriously and following through with good suggestions or ideas that they have.

I once worked with the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood residents. I told them about a detour that would be in place in their area, and they were absolutely against it because their annual neighborhood parade was going to be held at the same time and place where the detour was going to be. The parade was very important to them.

They suggested another route as a detour. I realized that their suggestion could definitely work. When I said that to them, it was a huge deal and they didn’t feel defensive or upset anymore. They wanted to be part of the solution. So, I went back to the engineers, showed them the suggested route, and they agreed that it was fine.

Working together with people and understanding them will make them feel like they’re part of a solution rather than victims.

What is something interesting that has happened to you here?

In 1987 I made up the word “stakeholder.” I remember talking to my stockbroker on the phone while writing a news release, and when I hung up, I tried to think of a word to describe all the people who had a stake in this project that I was writing about. I immediately thought of the word stakeholders.

Soon, government publications and other state and federal people started to pick up on that word. So, I’m taking credit for creating it.

Are you involved in any Mn/DOT committees or activities?

I’ve been part of the Diversity Council for two years now. I’ve also been a “book buddy” for students at a local elementary school for a few years. It’s a great program and a valuable experience for kids and adults alike.                                              

Do you or a co-worker have an interesting job to share with readers? Click here to send us your ideas, and we’ll contact you for more information.

Recent employee profiles:


New on the Web: Grant opportunities

People interested in learning about transportation-related grant opportunities will find a new source of that information on Mn/DOT’s Web site.

Some grants that Mn/DOT awards are based on formulas, while others are awarded through an open competitive process.

For more information, see If you have a grant that you want added to the site, contact Webmaster.


‘Tis the season for snow, ice preparation

By Steve Lund, state maintenance engineer

Steve Lund

Steve Lund, state maintenance engineer, credits preparation, training, technology and employee dedication for the success of Mn/DOT's snow and ice operations. Photo by Craig Wilkins

For many of us, this time of year is when we make those preparations that set us up for the long haul—whether it’s tracking down ice scrapers or collecting a few (or not so few) items for the trunk survival gear. Winter brings with it a feeling that we better get ready.

This is oh-so-true for the Mn/DOT maintenance crews across the state. The snow and ice service that our snow fighters do is second to none in the country, and all of us at Mn/DOT can be very proud of that.

Of course, this level of service does not just happen; it takes much preparation. Mn/DOT is doing more training than ever before to prepare our snowfighters for the long haul. Whether it’s the Mn/DOT snowfighter’s boot camp, SPOT (Snow Plow Operator Training) for new operators, completion of annual snow and ice refresher training or going through the “motions” in Mn/DOT’s new driving simulator, training is one key to our success.

Our snow fighting technology has come a long way over the years. Most Mn/DOT employees don’t remember the days when many of our plows left the truck station staffed with two maintenance workers– one to steer the truck and one to operate the wing plow. Last year Mn/DOT introduced the tow plow into its arsenal of snow fighting strategies and it was a hit. This new truck/plow adds another plowing blade along with additional chemical treating capability. It’s a pretty neat thing to see. This winter, Mn/DOT will have five tow plows in operation in District 3 and the Metro District.

Our weather prediction effort has seen quite a change as well. In the old days, our operators relied on their local weatherman or on what they could see falling from the clouds. Today our plows are tracking weather with in-cab computers and monitors as it happens…and changes.

Yes, our snow and ice technology has changed quite a bit over recent years, but through all of this, we still rely on many dedicated and professional employees. Our snowfighters aren’t the only ones displaying this commitment. Whether it’s our mechanics and inventory employees keeping the plows moving or the trainers keeping our snowfighters ready, these are just some of the folks who prepare Mn/DOT to meet the challenges that come with winter in Minnesota.

So, as you go through your Minnesota ritual of getting ready for winter, you can rest assured that Mn/DOT’s maintenance employees have done the same.

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