Duluth mayor proposes bridge overhaul

At a news conference in front of Minnesota Slip on Thursday morning, Emily Larson pledged to accomplish something no other Duluth mayor yet has managed to do in the past quarter century. Larson said she will make the notoriously unreliable pedest...

Pedestrians cross the blue Minnesota Slip Bridge from Harbor Drive to Canal Park in August 2013. (file photo / News Tribune)

At a news conference in front of Minnesota Slip on Thursday morning, Emily Larson pledged to accomplish something no other Duluth mayor yet has managed to do in the past quarter century. Larson said she will make the notoriously unreliable pedestrian lift bridge that spans the slip work properly and consistently.
“We are no longer going to study it. We are no longer going to talk about plans to study it. We actually have a plan to fix this bridge,” she said.
On Monday, Larson will ask the Duluth City Council to authorize a $329,000 contract with LHB to have the firm design a retrofit for the bridge’s machinery drive. She said funding for the project will come from savings the city will realize as it refinances outstanding bonds at more favorable terms.
“Basically, we’re going to take that cable system off of the bridge, and we’re going to replace it with a gear system,” said Cari Pedersen, Duluth’s chief transportation engineer. “We’re going to be able to drive the bridge up and down, which will make it much more reliable and safe. That’s it in a nutshell.”
The contract with LHB will cover the design work alone. The actual production and installation of a new bridge mechanism will require additional investment of an as-of-yet-undetermined cost, said Pakou Ly, a city public information coordinator.
Dan Russell, executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which operates the pedestrian bridge, said the structure has been plagued with mechanical problems since the day it opened.
“I was here when the bridge was dedicated, back in 1991. The bridge worked for four days then broke,” he said. “I also was here when it was rededicated three weeks after that, and it has just continued to be more inconvenient for our convention delegates, for all the people downtown who try to go to Canal Park for lunch through this beautiful skywalk that we just completed and for the approximately 600,000 people who cross it each year.”
The bridge is lifted as needed to provide marine access to the slip for charter fishing boats and the Vista Fleet tour boats that dock there. Last year, the bridge was raised and lowered 4,564 times, said Russell, who recalled 2015 as a particularly problematic year.
“Last year was totally unacceptable,” he said. “It was down for mechanical reasons 35 days in our brief summer, and in addition, this bridge doesn’t work if the wind is blowing. Well, we’re in Duluth, where the wind blows, so there were an additional 10 days that we couldn’t operate it because of wind conditions.”
Given the design work yet to be done and the mechanism that likely will need to be custom fabricated, Pedersen said the bridge improvements probably won’t be completed until May of next year.
Russell said Lakehead Engineering remains under contract to provide maintenance services for the bridge this summer, as a stopgap measure.
“We realize how important this summer is, with all the events, especially tall ships,” he said.
Larson said the city will strive to minimize breakdowns this summer, but in light of the bridge’s history, some inconvenient problems are likely to occur.
“We have had, of course, for many years issues with the blue bridge, issues of connectivity, breakdowns that prevent tourists and people from getting to the aquarium and the DECC through Canal Park, whether you’re on your midday lunch break and want to get a walk in or whether you have invested money and time to make this your family vacation destination,” she said.
Larson characterized the link the bridge provides as “critically important,” not only in terms of convenience but also from a public safety standpoint.
“We take this very seriously as a city, and I’m thrilled that we have a plan to move forward and get this fixed, to get it operational so that people can bike it and walk it for years to come,” she said.
In light of the blue bridge’s tarnished reputation, David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, suggested repainting it, and Russell embraced the idea.
“Let’s not have a blue bridge anymore. Let’s have a maroon bridge or a pink bridge,” Russell said. “I don’t know how far that idea is going to go, but I happen to think it’s absolutely ingenious, so we don’t have to talk about the blue bridge anymore.”
Larson’s mayoral predecessor, Don Ness, had explored the idea of filling in Minnesota Slip to improve access to Park Point and provide additional parking. But Larson said she doesn’t favor that option.
“I don’t think that’s in the best interest of public waterfront access,” she said.
Russell referred to the failing seawall along the slip and adjacent to the DECC as “an equally critical issue.”
“It’s not as glamorous, but we hope to have the seawall issue resolved by next season,” he said.
That, too, likely will require an expensive fix.
“Our best estimate - and this could change - is roughly $6 million,” he said, explaining that would include replacing the seawall, tearing down a compromised Vista Fleet storage facility and installing a new boardwalk.
“That will be on the same fast track,” Russell said.
Contaminated sediments in the slip will eventually need to be dealt with, as well, and Larson said the city will work with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and any other regulatory bodies involved to address those issues.



Related Topics: CANAL PARK
Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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