- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

WINONA, Minn. (AP) | Jeremy Smith lives in Wisconsin and works in Minnesota, just a 10-minute car trip across the Mississippi River to his job.

But when the state of Minnesota abruptly closed the Highway 43 bridge that connects the two states - the only bridge for miles in either direction - that dream commute became 70 miles longer. With gas at $4 a gallon, Mr. Smith grabbed his canoe and started paddling.

“It was a good workout to start and end the day,” said Mr. Smith, who just happens to work at a canoe manufacturer that offered the use of boats to its Wisconsin-side employees.

Nonetheless, Mr. Smith was happy to park his canoe this week when the city of Winona launched a new mass transit system familiar to many coastal areas but rare along the relatively narrow Mississippi - ferries.

The big river has always played a major role in the identity of Winona, a city of about 25,000 people in southeast Minnesota. The Highway 43 bridge itself was just featured on a postage stamp commemorating Minnesota’s 150th birthday.

But when state officials moved to close the bridge because of trouble signs in its gusset plates - the same component blamed in part for the collapse of a Minneapolis interstate bridge last summer - it was a reminder of how much power the river has over people’s lives here.

An estimated 2,800 people commute across the Highway 43 bridge every day, and detours to the nearest working bridges add about 70 miles to get from one side of the closed bridge to the other.

The closure wasn’t just an inconvenience to workers. Businesses feared the impact of lost customers, too.

“We had a big, big headache on our hands,” said Monica Hennessy Mohan, the city clerk responsible for setting up the ferry system.

The city contracted with the owners of two boats - the Island Girl, a river cruise company, and the Mississippi Explorer, which leads so-called “eco-tours” of Mississippi back channels. The city is charging $15 for a week’s worth of rides, or $5 for a day pass, and business started off with a bang.

Nearly 2,500 people took the ferries Monday, the first day, and ridership was even higher the next day. Buses on both sides of the river carry passengers to park-and-ride lots in Wisconsin and along city bus routes in Winona.

Miss Mohan said providing the service will cost the city of Winona almost $95,000 a week - money the city hopes to recoup from the state and federal government.

Near the end of the week, it appeared the ferries wouldn’t be needed for long, as the state announced plans to reopen it to passenger vehicles Saturday.

The 67-year-old bridge was closed after an inspection found rust and corrosion on several gusset plates - the same feature identified as a “critical factor” in the Minneapolis collapse, although the problem with gusset plates on the two bridges were different.

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