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Local view: Blatnik lights a chance to spotlight our values, bridge our differences

As a Duluth resident, I'm all for keeping our connection to the city of Superior strong. But something tells me the Anchor Bar, Fond-du-Luth Casino and Sunday liquor laws bring us closer together than the decorative lights on the Blatnik Bridge.

As a Duluth resident, I'm all for keeping our connection to the city of Superior strong. But something tells me the Anchor Bar, Fond-du-Luth Casino and Sunday liquor laws bring us closer together than the decorative lights on the Blatnik Bridge.

Those lights will soon go dark to accommodate a $12 million maintenance project on the "High Bridge." And a $1.2 million price tag for reinstallation, for which Minnesota can marshal only $600,000, may keep them dark.

That possibility has ruffled some feathers locally, including those of State Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, who has vowed to find money to reinstall the lights -- even if it means badgering his Wisconsin counterparts into picking up half the tab. (I'm sure they'll be very receptive toward Reinert, whose efforts to change Minnesota's liquor laws could cost Wisconsin millions of dollars in lost sales and tax revenue.)

Don't get me wrong; I think Reinert represents Duluth well. And he's smart in trying to unite us behind positive populism like this and his Vikings stadium proposal for Duluth.

But there's an even bigger opportunity here -- one that would spotlight our city's values, as opposed to its vanity, while pleasing local tree huggers and fiscal hawks alike. Seizing it will require a blend of creativity, practicality and restraint that our political process has lately lacked.

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First, let's be clear: The Minnesota Department of Transportation says that the decorative lights provide no safety value. They're a want, not a need.

So we're essentially talking about spending more than half a million dollars for an industrial-size string of Christmas lights to drape over one of our most impressive architectural structures. And nothing is tackier than leaving your lights up all year, as all of us know. Well, OK, perhaps not "all of us," but still. ...

While unplugging the decorative lights isn't a safety issue, the condition of our bridges and highways is. Yet the $600,000 needed for the lights would come directly out of the construction budget MnDOT uses to keep state roads and bridges in working condition.

According to Mike Tardy, a MnDOT district engineer in Duluth, we're spending only 25 percent to 50 percent of what's required to meet the state's target road quality metrics. That doesn't mean that any of our roads or bridges are currently unsafe, Tardy assured me. But it does mean we're falling behind on maintaining our infrastructure.

That's why we need to set our pride aside and pass on reinstalling the lights when the maintenance project ends. Doing so will prioritize infrastructure over aesthetics and conserve both money and energy for the future. For right now, it's the right call.

Choosing this path now doesn't mean we have to keep the bridge dark forever, either. Instead, we could make relighting the bridge the capstone or reward for a larger energy conservation effort. Perhaps we can resolve to reinstall the lights only when we can power them with some benchmark percentage of clean or renewable energy. Today the lights run on mostly coal-fired electricity.

Or we could set aside a little money each year until we can afford a state-of-the-art LED system whose savings could pay us back in full -- before our grandchildren would have to surrender a penny for it.

Imagine that relighting ceremony -- imbued with these additional measures of anticipation and accomplishment. Flipping the switch would instantly turn the Blatnik into a monument to our ability to set our priorities, make smart choices, achieve our goals and bridge our differences.

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Now that's something worth shining a light on.

Michael Kooi is a freelance writer and resident of Duluth's East Hillside neighborhood. He writes about Duluth at dulu-sions.areavoices.com.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
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