Building bridges across international borders is complicated.
The process requires approvals from authorities in neighboring countries at all phases of design and construction. Then add the demands of shipping shale oil and other international commerce and the remoteness of the Baudette-Rainy River Bridge. It links Minnesota Highway 72 and Ontario Highway 11 and the towns of Baudette, Minn., and Rainy River, Ontario, near a popular year-round fishing area with a port and nearby railroad.
Taken together, that gives a good picture of the challenges faced by the team designing and building the $39.3-million, 1,350-ft-long, 48.2-ft-wide, five-span Baudette-Rainy River Bridge, set to be completed this fall.
It’s the first new U.S.-Canada bridge to be built west of Maine since its own predecessor in 1960. The existing bridge has an overhead steel structure that can support normal weight loads but is not permitted to carry overweight loads or over-dimensional loads.
The new bridge will be supported by I-girders and have a haunched continuous steel structure to allow 18-wheelers with wide loads and other truck traffic to cross from Rainy River to Baudette. It’ll also have a bike and pedestrian lane. There are no road border crossings for 50 miles east or west of the bridge so keeping it open during construction was essential.
“After we had the [I-35W] bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007, there was a bonding package that our legislature put together called Chapter 152,” says Tony Lesch, design-build principal engineer at the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation. “That allocated money to MnDOT to address fracture-critical bridges in the U.S. This was one of the bridges identified in the Chapter 152 program. We reached out and discussed with our co-owners, the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario, and they had similar time frames in mind for the replacement of that bridge.”
Baudette is five hours north of Minneapolis, and the nearest airport that can handle freight is two hours south, in Bemidji, Minn.
Logistical challenges included getting steel bridge sections to the site from the fabricator in Gary, Ind., and finding enough skilled labor for such a large project. The height of the bridge had to be limited by the flight path of small planes from nearby Baudette Airport. The ends of the bridge had to provide continuous sight lines from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Canadian Border Service Agency ports of entry buildings. The bridge also is being built right next to the existing two-lane bridge because traffic has to stay open at the site.
“Initially, we looked at prestressed concrete beams that are fabricated in Minnesota, but not in Canada,” says Joe McKinnon, project manager for MnDOT District 2. “Canada didn’t have the facilities for it, to ensure that both countries had the equal opportunity to provide materials. Then we ended up with some transport restrictions, such as a right-angle turn coming to the site. So there were some complications and issues to be considered as to how materials could get here.”
MnDOT and the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario identified 12 different bridge types that could be constructed, then narrowed those to the three most-viable options and ultimately chose steel I-beams, McKinnon says.
Stantec, which has operations in both Canada and Minnesota, produced the preliminary and environmental designs, and the Parsons Transportation Group of Washington, D.C., developed the final bridge design. The design was coordinated among 90 stakeholders to mesh environmental studies on both sides of the border and address permitting, design criteria, construction planning, agency involvement, historical issues, border security and public participation.
“We felt it was important to have a government-to-government agreement that kind of explained who was going to do what,” McKinnon says. “Because MnDOT had the funding origination, and we maybe had a closer location to Baudette than the Thunder Bay area [where the MTO’s] regional office was, MnDOT would have been the lead, or kind of the lead, agency between the two.”
MnDOT’s legal office drafted a government-to-government agreement explaining responsibilities through the end of preliminary design. It helped that both Parsons and Stantec had offices in both countries and knew the regulations. From there a series of scheduling workshops brought together MnDOT, MTO, and Stantec to decide on individual roles. The U.S. Dept. of State considers the government-to-government agreement to be a treaty. The first in a series of workshop meetings was held in 2013 in MnDOT’s Duluth office.
“It was really just a huge Gantt chart where we said, ‘Theresa [Maahs, associate and project manager at Stantec] is going to be running the U.S. tasks and looking at the environmental processes, the NEPA processes that have to be satisfied,’” recalls Dale Grove, a principal in Stantec’s Minneapolis office. “Canada has slightly different processes. So we started with Post-it notes saying, ‘When can we start? When do we have to do this? When will this be done?’”
The level of detail required to mesh the standards of the two entities was remarkable. For example, MTO and MnDOT had differing philosophies and standards for what type of rebar to use in the deck. MnDOT’s was epoxy-coated rebar while MTO’s was stainless steel.
“So do we build half the bridge with green bars and half the bridge with stainless steel?” Grove asked. “On that, that took a workshop, a day-long workshop between the two agencies. That time we chose to meet near Toronto to work through those differences.”
In the end, stainless steel was chosen for rebar throughout the bridge. Other issues included stormwater collection on the bridge (U.S.) vs. deck drains in Canada. The Ministry of Transportation of Ontario requires navigation lights on bridges, while MnDOT only encourages them.
The more stringent standard won in nearly all such cases. Earl Warren, contract services administrator for the MTO, says that decisions were made about procurement to ensure fairness standards for Canadian materials producers as well as American firms. Input throughout from all stakeholder agencies such as CBP, the General Services Administration and CBSA helped the team pick the best placement for the new bridge.
“The impact on us has been really minimal and with CBSA as well,” says Shelly Kraft, the CBP supervisor in Baudette. “It’s going to require a straightening of one of our roads and that’s basically it. The placement of this bridge gives us a better turn radius too, which has been an issue. Once we started adding all our technology, it gets a little tight from the port to the bridge. So we feel the placement is better for us.”
Another of the agencies that had input was the Coast Guard because the border crosses a river.
“We have the railroad bridge that’s on the inside and the Coast Guard didn’t have a set navigation channel on the U.S. side, so we had to work with them to find what that was,” Maahs says. “They had a width they wanted to maintain, but the elevation was set by the road bridge. It also had to be coordinated with Transport Canada on the Canadian side. So it was two agencies.”
General contractor Lunda Construction began work on the project in summer 2018. The initial plan was to use a 250-ft temporary causeway into the river on the Minnesota side to provide a workspace for constructing bridge abutments and piers, then build the pier footings and pier stems. Progress was initially slowed by the presence of boulders in the rocky terrain, but drilling subcontractor Veit was able to excavate and remove the biggest obstacles.
“Some of the boulders we were pulling out were wider than our shafts,” says Ron Gjovik, a MnDOT inspector.
Work on the abutments and four piers began in June 2018 and continued through the 2019 construction season. Installation of steel beams for the bridge deck began in late 2019. A Manitowoc 2250 crane, along with a smaller crane, is being used to place steel sections from five Lunda barges, including one with a drill rig. Customs officials attended the weekly construction meetings.
The new bridge will require 3,660 cu yd of concrete, 1 million lb of stainless steel rebar, 2,022 tons of structural steel, 730 cu yd of concrete pavement and 792 linear ft of 90-in. to 96-in. drilled shaft foundation.
Steel has been installed for about half of the bridge, and it’s on schedule to be completed this fall.
One final curiosity of the procurement process was determining the historical value of the existing bridge. Canada did not consider it historic, but it was deemed a rare example of Pennsylvania through-truss construction by the U.S. government. MnDOT, therefore, had to advertise it for sale before planning demolition. The catch: the potential purchaser would have to pay for taking the material away but would get only half the bridge. There were no takers to buy half of a bridge.