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Below the bridge

MNDOT bridge inspector Larry Paige and another MNDOT employee survey the bottom

Perched in a small “snooper” bucket, Larry Paige conducted a routine safety inspection Wednesday with the Mississippi River far below and hundreds of vehicles crossing overhead on Brainerd’s Washington Street Bridge.

Up on top of the bridge, the bright sun and noisy traffic of the Highway 210 bridge made conversation difficult for Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) employees. But “down under” in the basket of the specially designed inspection bucket truck it was shady, cool and relatively quiet.

As he lowered himself down in the bucket he exchanged greetings with two Mississippi River anglers down below who jokingly offered him a beer and reported that they had seen four muskies on their outing.

Looking for signs of deterioration, he explained that the inspection would likely continue Thursday, Aug. 22, and then a bridge repair crew would return in about two weeks to make any necessary repairs or conduct routine maintenance.

The bridge, which links Brainerd’s downtown area to west Brainerd and serves a multitude of Brainerd lakes area and out-of-town motorists, averages 25,000 vehicles a day. Despite the heavy traffic Paige said the 1932 bridge, which was rehabilitated and redecked in 1984, looked good.

“I don’t think fatigue is an issue,” he said of the bridge’s under-side. “All of this looks so darn new. I’m impressed. It’s in awful nice shape.”

He has seen bridges that were in considerably worse shape, in pictures and at bridge conferences for MnDOT employees.

“There’s nothing going on here that’s in any kind of serious condition,” he said. “I feel our bridges (in MnDOT’s District 3A) are some of the best in the state,” he said with mostly cosmetic problems.

Rick Pickar, bridge supervisor for District 3A, said Wednesday the idea is to keep the cracks and joints sealed on the bridge in order to extend the life of the structure. Bridge inspections are conducted once every 24 months.

“We’re looking for signs of corrosion,” Pickar said.

Before the days when the “snooper” bucket was available to use for inspections and repair work, bridge inspectors did a lot more climbing, Pickar said.

“They weren’t particular about the harnesses then,” Paige said.

MnDOT officials estimated the machine the inspection team used Wednesday in Brainerd cost about $750,000. Once it is lowered down and then under the bridge it has a horizontal reach of 62 feet.

J.P. Gillach, District 3 public affairs coordinator, said the biggest change since the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis has been a tightening of administrative oversight. Where there might have been a three-month window of possible extensions during which the twice-yearly inspections could have been conducted — that window is now gone.

Paige said that once the inspection is completed on the bridge he probably has about two hours of paper/computer work.

“It probably should take less but I’m a slow typer,” he said.

Paige, of rural Brainerd, has worked for MnDOT since 1987 and has been on the bridge inspection team since 1997. He said he’s not a fan of climbing in high places without some sort of harness, but in general working at great heights is not a problem for him.

“It doesn’t bother me if I’m using safety equipment,” he said.

Oddly enough, he said the riskiest aspect of the job is stepping in and out of the basket once it’s securely back on the truck platform on the busy bridge.

“The most dangerous part you did was getting out of the basket in this traffic,” he told an observer.

Paige controlled the bucket with his own levers while it was under the bridge but the final leg of the journey was controlled by his colleague Mark Miller.

“Thank you for flying Sun Country,” Miller said through the radio communication system as he gently landed the bucket on to the truck platform.

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or He may be followed at

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860