Motorcycles and Civil Disobedience

The Opening of the I35W Bridge

by Steve Tiedman

Sure, we motorcyclists can be civil. Today, Sept. 18th, 2008, at 4:30 AM, I was on my motorcycle aimed south on I-35W from Johnson Street NE, traffic cones diverting vehicles to exit the interstate before the new river bridge, as they have been for the past year.  I saw one bike with 2 riders sitting on the shoulder under the Broadway Ave overpass, waiting.  Two overpasses further down the freeway, a flatbed tow truck was doing the same thing, so I pulled in behind him and waited a couple minutes.

As soon as the utility truck picking up the cones went past me, essentially opening the lanes, I pulled out onto the dark, quiet freeway all alone.  A few hundred feet later, there was another rider on the shoulder; an old bike with a sidecar frame that had a big American flag attached.  I waved at him to come with me, so he pulled out and fell in alongside me.

After another couple hundred feet, we came to a stop in the center lane of southbound I-35W, about 200 feet behind a blockade of MNDOT trucks with flashing arrow signs, directing people to exit the interstate at 4th/University. We weren’t having any part of that; we stood our ground.

feature107A moment later, as another rider was pulling up on my left, with my flag-bearing wingman on my right, one of the DOT truckers walked up and gently told us that the State Patrol had instructed him to tell any gatherers that they’d have to move on, they didn‘t want people sitting on the freeway this early.  I looked at the rider on my right, at the rider on my left, and then I told the DOT guy that I was broken down, but that I’d consider pulling to the center median.  In the few seconds this conversation took, some cars pulled in right behind us and stopped.  We all looked around, and I told the DOT guy, “Well, we’ve been warned.”  He smiled and walked back to his truck.

In the next minute or so, a total of 5 other motorcycles were parked on the interstate alongside of me, with a dozen cars and trucks behind us.  We were going to open this new bridge.   After a few minutes, an unmarked squad car with dash lights flashing approached us from the other side of the DOT trucks.  The officer rolled across the front of us, rolled down his window, and said, “Thanks for coming out this morning.”  Then up the window went, and he returned to his original position. Over the next 20 minutes, cars were backed up as far as I was able to see.

At 4:56am, we started our motorcycles and prepared to christen this new bridge with our tire rubber.

At 5:00am, the police/fire/ambulance escort at the front lit up their lights, the DOT trucks revved their engines and blasted their air horns, and we kicked our bikes into gear. And as a fairly uniform line of motorcycles, flashing lights and honking horns, we opened the new I-35W bridge.  What a rush!

As we crossed the bridge, the rider to my left and I were at the head of the pack and exited immediately at Washington Ave. We were going to loop back to the northbound side of the bridge to make it a 2-way crossing.  We were the first to exit the freeway, with hundreds of cars behind us, and we were the first to re-enter on the opposite side.

As we rolled onto the northbound lane, I pulled up in front of my wingman and became, what I am certain of, the first civilian vehicle driver to cross the new I-35W bridge in both directions. A few minutes later, I got home in time to see the morning news traffic report as they showed overhead video of the first bit of southbound traffic passing over the new bridge. And there I was, front and center, right behind the emergency vehicles and DOT trucks.

I live just a couple miles away from the I-35W bridge and use it frequently. I recall from that day in August ’07 that the weather forecasters said there was a bit of a chance for wet weather in the afternoon. It stayed dry. If it would have rained, I would have picked up my wife from work and driven her to an event in the neighborhood of the bridge, and afterward I would have been on the bridge within a minute or two of its collapse. Because it did not rain, I wasn’t needed to transport her. I was at home when the bridge came down.

Being there this morning for its opening… I don’t like clichés, but I guess in a sense it was an opportunity for closure for me; that a set of incredible events has now come full-circle. I visited the reconstruction site often by motorcycle, car, and on foot, from the time the site was open for public viewing until the final concrete span sections were placed. But being there today also gave me a chance to realize that life is short, and if a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself to you, even if it is just crossing a new bridge, take advantage of the opportunity for all it’s worth.

It’s a new day!  And that new bridge is a heck of a thing.


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