Blatnik Bridge Replacement Update: Cost Revealed + Tunnel Decision
The design and eventual cost of the Blatnik Bridge replacement project is starting to come into focus. At a public meeting held on December 9, officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation provided clarifying details about the project targeted for the end of this decade.
Actual construction on the bridge won't start until 2028. Right now, the transportation agencies are in the design portion of the project - allowing for plenty of public comment and participation. MNDOT Major Projects Engineer Pat Huston acknowledged:
"These times are the building blocks or foundation of the process. Your [the public's] input is super important, because we're building....the foundation."
As of right now, none of the designs or plans are set in stone and nothing has been finalized. However, attendees at the meeting did go home with some interesting information. According to an article in the Superior Telegram [paywall], the following points about the project were shared:
- Cost: MNDOT and WISDOT shared that the expected cost for a replacement for the Blatnik Bridge will probably surpass $1.8 billion by the time construction starts. That dollar amount is high; Minnesota transportation officials surmised that it would be the "highest cost of its kind in the state" - even surpassing major structural work that occurred in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area like the I-35 replacement bridge over the Mississippi River. WISDOT's Northwest Region Deputy Director Jessica Felix shared that "[i]n Wisconsin, we've spent billions before".
- Tunnels: Engineers have finally put this talked-about element of the bridge replacement to rest:
"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."
- Duluth-side connection: Will remain where it is now - off of Garfield Avenue. No matter what the replacement Blatnik Bridge ends up looking like, it will connect to the Minnesota side at or near the same spot it does right now.
- Superior-side connection: This is where there is still a conversation going on. For a variety of reasons, MNDOT and WISDOT officials would like to see a Blatnik Bridge replacement moved from it's current Hammond Avenue connection. However, that's not that easy to just do - and it comes with potential consequences for downtown businesses.
Transportation officials also talked about adding pedestrian and bicycle lanes to a replacement bridge. Right now, the current Blatnik Bridge doesn't have any; the Bong Bridge does.
Financing also was discussed. There had been some hope that the project could tap into the Biden administration's $1 trillion infrastructure package. However, "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". In other words, the timetable for the replacement project wouldn't let it qualify to use those funds.
No matter what ends up happening with the Blatnik Bridge, both MNDOT and WISDOT stressed that the current structure is safe to continue using. Additionally, they're taking maintenance and inspection measures to make sure that it will last through its need - until the replacement can be finished. That said, it's already 10 years past its design life span and, "the bridge can't accept oversize loads and is capped at the standard 80,000 pounds for commercial truck traffic".