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'Now is that time': Officials stress importance of public input on Blatnik Bridge project

A virtual public meeting Tuesday will present steps being taken to reach preliminary design for a major project set for construction in 2028.

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The Blatnik Bridge is pictured in 2019. (Steve Kuchera / File / News Tribune)

A virtual meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the Blatnik Bridge project has state transportation officials continuing to stress the importance of public input now for a project beginning construction in 2028 .

“The front end is very important for public involvement,” Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman Pippi Mayfield said. “This is when people can influence decisions. It may be a long time between now and actual construction, but it moves quickly.”

Depending on the future alignment, the project has a chance to significantly impact the neighborhoods where the bridge approaches land in Duluth and Superior.

“When the public waits to get involved, it becomes too late at some point and then people are upset they aren’t heard or didn’t have a chance to speak up,” Mayfield said. “Now is that time. We’re trying to stress the importance of early involvement.”

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The Blatnik Bridge from Rice’s Point looking toward Superior in fall 2019. (Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram)

It’s not yet known whether the bridge carrying Interstate 535 between Duluth and Superior will be replaced in its entirety, rehabilitated or a combination of both. It could remain on its existing alignment or a new one.

Tuesday’s meeting will reveal conceptual alignments and the screening process being used to evaluate questions such as: Will the alignment follow the existing bridge, or be offset east or west? Will it be a new bridge or a tunnel?

Assistant district engineer Pat Huston, the No. 2 MnDOT official in Duluth, will conduct the meeting.

Jointly owned and managed by MnDOT and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Blatnik Bridge serves an average of about 33,021 cars traveling between the two cities each day.

MnDOT will lead the Blatnik Bridge project, which will evaluate the aging infrastructure, traffic safety, and how to accommodate oversize and overweight loads.

Currently, underwater divers are assessing the condition of steel piling at four bridge piers buried into the bed of the St. Louis River estuary — two on the Minnesota side and two on the Wisconsin side.

“The project to inspect the existing piles at four piers is currently underway but not yet complete,” Mayfield said. “The fieldwork for the two piers on the Minnesota side is complete, and they are beginning work on the two piers on the Wisconsin side.”

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Results of the underwater assessments should be available in July.

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A pair of workers hang over the edge of the John A. Blatnik Bridge on July 7 over Rice’s Point as they inspect the bridge. (Jed Carlson / 2020 file / Superior Telegram)

What’s already known is that the 60-year-old bridge, opened in 1961, has critical components under attack by rust due to chlorides in the ice repellant used on the bridge in the winter. In particular, gusset plates — big steel plates that hold together members of the steel truss — are being affected. Those cannot be easily replaced without destabilizing the bridge.

The Blatnik is Minnesota's second-longest bridge and Wisconsin's third. While safe for everyday travel, the deteriorating condition of the bridge has forced the removal of oversize commercial loads from using the bridge, and caused more frequent inspection and maintenance, including structural maintenance later this year.

The two states have set a $400 million placeholder figure for construction, but until a design is settled upon it will remain unclear how much the project will actually cost.

PREVIOUSLY:

  • Blatnik Bridge future unfolds as agencies begin working toward major project in 2028 A public meeting this week featured lots of current unknowns, not the least of which is, will there be a new bridge or won't there?
  • Could Blatnik Bridge replacement be a tunnel? The first public meeting on a project scheduled to begin in 2028 yielded the notion that all options will be considered.

Preliminary design of what Minnesota and Wisconsin choose to do won't be completed until between 2024 and 2026. Final design will come between 2026-28, and construction will take place 2028-31.
Huston is expected to discuss the steps to reach preliminary design.

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“He will talk about the process — where we’re at in the process, the conceptual designs, the screening process and how we will reach the final decision,” Mayfield said.

MnDOT has conducted virtual public meetings for all its projects throughout the pandemic.

For more information on the Blatnik Bridge project, and a link to join the virtual meeting, visit dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/blatnik-bridge/meetings.html . The meeting access code is 187 286 5827.

Those without internet access can call 855-282-6330 to join the meeting.

For those unable to attend the meeting, a recording of the meeting will be posted to the webpage.

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