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After Biden, now comes hard part for Blatnik Bridge

How to raise $1.8 billion wasn't part of the president's visit — that job falls to folks on both sides of the bridge.

Blatnik Bridge
The Blatnik Bridge connects Duluth and Superior.
Clint Austin / 2017 file / Duluth News Tribune
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SUPERIOR — In town this week to promote his Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, President Joe Biden used the Blatnik Bridge to illustrate the nation’s bridges in need of repair.

Built in 1961, Blatnik Bridge suffers from a debilitating rust problem the Minnesota Department of Transportation can only repair and never reverse. Since 2016, officials have been saying the bridge was near the end of its useful life.

President Joe Biden speaks to the crowd
President Joe Biden speaks to the crowd about improving infrastructure across the region during a speech at the Yellowjacket Union on the UW-Superior campus Wednesday afternoon, March 2, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“There’s 879 bridges in Wisconsin, 661 in Minnesota that are in poor condition,” Biden said on Wednesday at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, shortly after he’d stopped beneath the Blatnik to get a closer inspection.

The president made Superior his first stop following his State of the Union address.

The president’s visit touted $40 billion created by the new law to fund bridge rehabilitation across the country.

But to hear the Minnesota Department of Transportation tell it a day later, Biden’s visit was only the first step.

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Rehabilitating or replacing the Blatnik Bridge is expected to cost up to $1.8 billion — and Biden didn’t leave a check behind when he left aboard Air Force One.

“It’s targeted in a bunch of different programs,” MnDOT’s Duane Hill said on Thursday of the federal infrastructure money. “Yesterday was really about pointing to the Blatnik Bridge as an example of infrastructure needs in our country. Funding the Blatnik Bridge is going to be challenging, and take a combination of things.”

Hill is the district engineer in charge of MnDOT’s Duluth office, which is juggling a host of big-name projects, including the ongoing $343 million Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction through Lincoln Park.

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Minnesota Department of Transportation District 1 Engineer Duane Hill takes part in a roundtable discussion in Duluth in July 2021.
Samantha Erkkila / File / Duluth News Tribune

Access to new federal infrastructure monies is going to be competitive, Hill explained, coming in the form of formula-based federal aid and an array of grant programs.

MnDOT figures to file its grant applications jointly with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Both agencies have jurisdiction over the two bridges joining the Twin Ports. The Bong Bridge is maintained by WisDOT, while the Blatnik is under MnDOT’s care.

“We’re doing a repair project on the Blatnik Bridge this summer for $6 million,” Hill said. “We have to keep investing in the existing bridge to keep it in service.”

The bridge is weight restricted, meaning oversize loads are forced to use the Bong Bridge exclusively. Only a complete replacement of Blatnik Bridge would result in the lifting of those restrictions, Hill explained, meaning if existing approaches or spans are retained in a rebuilding process, so will weight restrictions.

The Blatnik Bridge project is targeted to begin in 2028. To hear Hill talk, there’s a lot of proverbial water to be crossed before he can discuss Blatnik’s future with certainty.

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“There are a lot of transportation needs around our region,” Hill said.

Surely, the president’s attention raised Blatnik’s profile as a project in need of funding?

“We’ve been trying hard to talk to people about it — elected officials for a number of years — that this is a future need,” Hill said. “The president’s visit shows we’ve been effective.”

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Brady Slater is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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