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Blatnik Bridge replacement cost: up to $1.8 billion

In addition to the big cost reveal, officials from Wisconsin and Minnesota also started to produce prospective alignments of a new Blatnik Bridge, including a possible direct connection with U.S. Highway 53 instead of Hammond Avenue.

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The Blatnik Bridge from Rice’s Point looking toward Superior in fall 2019. Duluth News Tribune file photo
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Reconstruction or replacement of the Blatnik Bridge between Duluth and Superior could cost up to $1.8 billion by the time construction rolls around in 2028.

That was the primary takeaway from a virtual public meeting Thursday conducted by the transportation departments of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which are splitting the cost of the joint project.

“This is a big project and that’s a big number,” Duluth-based MnDOT major projects engineer Pat Huston said, while stressing the difficulties in applying a dollar figure to a still-undetermined project. “(B)ut we need to be responsible and figure out how we’re going to fund a project — whatever it is.”

Minnesota officials couldn’t confirm, but suspected it would be the highest cost of its kind in the state, citing the St. Croix Crossing Bridge that opened in 2017 between Stillwater, Minnesota and St. Croix, Wisconsin, coming in under $700 million. The I-35 replacement bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis came in at $234 million in 2008.

“It’s got to be at the top of the list,” Huston said of the Blatnik figure. “Inflation plays a big role.”

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Jessica Felix, WisDOT’s northwest region deputy director based in Superior, cited examples of similarly priced projects around Milwaukee.

“In Wisconsin, we’ve spent billions before,” Felix said.

Huston said it was necessary to apply a dollar figure prior to the selection of a defined project in order to open up access to funding in the years of planning leading up to the actual work scheduled for 2028-32.

The Blatnik Bridge opened in 1961, and carries Interstate 535 between the Twin Ports. It is unique for the way it rises 120 feet above Superior Bay, allowing clearance for lake freighter traffic. At 60 years old, it’s 10 years past its design life.

The transportation offices from both states insist the bridge is safe and that they’re able to extend its life through rigorous testing and maintenance. This summer an inspection-and-repair project will reduce traffic to one lane in each direction through September. However, the bridge can’t accept oversize loads and is capped at the standard 80,000 pounds for commercial truck traffic.

MnDOT’s lead official in Duluth, district engineer Duane Hill, said the department was holding out hope President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package could offer financial support and even accelerate the process.

“The competitive grant programs in the infrastructure bill are interesting and there is maybe an opportunity … to secure one of those federal grants,” Hill said.

One potential hang-up is that the bill identifies projects in a period through 2025. That’s expected to be only a preliminary design phase for the Blatnik Bridge project.

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For the first time Thursday, officials presented a series of conceptual bridge alignments — using the existing bridge alignment in what would be a major rehabilitation-style effort, or moving slightly both east and west of the current alignment, while staying in the same basic pocket. Building a new bridge in a parallel alignment could allow for traffic to use the old bridge during the long construction period, officials noted.

Officials also confirmed the bridge as it originates in Minnesota would keep to its Garfield Avenue alignment, while offering two exchange options in Superior — either on Hammond Avenue, similar to as it is now, or bending the main exchange to U.S. Highway 53, in what would be a better movement for commercial truck traffic. Serving traffic closer to Highway 53 would cost the downtown business district between 5-15% of its daily travel, according to study figures released Thursday.

“Right now freight is not allowed onto Hammond (Avenue), so that off ramp from Highway 53 is not ideal for semis,” said Marc Bowker, WisDOT’s northwest region planning engineer. “We want to improve that interchange as part of this project.”

The meeting was the third public meeting for the Blatnik Bridge project, with another one coming in the spring.

Officials urged residents on both halves of the Twin Ports to engage with the public feedback process now, citing ways residents can choose their preferred alignment, offer criticisms and suggest opportunities.

" These times are the building blocks or foundation of the process," Huston said. "Your input is super important, because we’re building ... the foundation."

The current alignments feature pedestrian and bike trail considerations, including extended neighborhood trail connectors off both ends of the bridge. The current Blatnik Bridge doesn’t offer bike or pedestrian access.

“We’re considering it equally,” Huston said, responding to multiple community commenters urging bicycle and pedestrian usage of a new or rehabilitated Blatnik Bridge.

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Officials used the meeting to put an end to the discussion of tunneling between the two cities, citing the vast amount of real estate a tunnel would require, the depth it would need to go to get below the shipping channels, and the potentially toxic environment it would create for possible use by pedestrians and cyclists.

Officials also dismissed the possibility of moving the proposed Northern Lights Express passenger rail off any updated Blatnik, citing grades too steep to accommodate trains.

“We really need to look at this as a system,” Huston said, reasoning for better connections with Superior, especially.

“We look at the two cities as a whole knowing origin and destination does not see a boundary,” Felix said, expanding on the idea of system development.

MnDOT’s interactive feedback map can be viewed by searching:

www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/blatnik-bridge/index.html

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