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Lights out for the Blatnik Bridge?

The bright lights of the Blatnik Bridge will go dark soon for a repair project, and it's up in the air whether enough money can be found to reinstall them after repairs are completed. (Photo by John Bray)

The iconic lights that outline the Blatnik Bridge linking Duluth and Superior will go dark and come down later this year during maintenance on the bridge.

Whether they return when the work is complete in 2013 is up in the air.

Corroded, in the way and "failing at an alarming rate," the more than 200 decorative lights and their wiring have to be removed as part of a $12 million, two-year maintenance project on the bridge that's slated to start in May, said Beth Petrowske, public affairs coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Duluth.

Putting the lights back up and replacing the wiring is estimated to cost $1.2 million. Minnesota generally splits costs with Wisconsin on Blatnik and Bong bridge projects, but the Blatnik's decorative lights were a project initiated and paid for on the Minnesota side from the beginning back in the 1990s.

That's the catch in replacing them.

MnDOT is "willing to cover and can commit to our 50 percent" of the replacement cost, or $600,000, said Duluth District Engineer Mike Tardy. But now, in a time of tight budgets and many other pending road projects, MnDOT says it wants Wisconsin -- or some other source -- to chip in for the other half.

"I understand that the decorative lights on the Blatnik are an important feature for the area," Tardy said. "Our challenge is that the price tag to replace them is really substantial. The funding has to come from somewhere."

To be clear, the lights in question do not include traffic lights and navigational beacons -- only the bridge's "aesthetic" lighting.

State Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, has gotten involved in the issue, reaching across the bridge to Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen and, in turn, officials from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in an attempt to find a solution.

"I was incredulous, (thinking) 'this can't be possible,'" Reinert said of when he first heard the lights might be going away. "In terms of Duluth landmarks, I think of the Lift Bridge, Enger Tower and the Blatnik. ... The idea of it being gone is just flat-out not OK by me."

As for WisDOT chipping in money toward the lighting, Chris Ouellette, communications manager for WisDOT's Northwest Region, said, "We haven't said yes, but we haven't said no.

"Our department is in the process of drafting policy for decorative lighting and how funding for that type of project might work," she said. That discussion is taking place in Madison, she said, and there might be more details to report this week.

Wisconsin Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, said he expects the lighting to be discussed during the annual Superior Days in Madison this week. But he said tight budgets may make it a tough sell.

"I think it's going to be very difficult," Milroy said. "It's something that a lot of people think is an amenity" instead of a necessity.

"When there's not a lot of money to go around you have to prioritize what's important,"

Reinert said the goal is for the two states to split costs. But if that doesn't happen, he said, he and Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, have drafted a bill to require MnDOT to find the money to reinstall the lights. Both legislators said that's an option they don't want to use.

"We're hoping that MnDOT will partner with WisDOT to get the money to get those lights back up," Gauthier said.

The lights

The decorative lights on the Blatnik originated with a letter from Duluth businessman Monnie Goldfine to then-state Sen. Sam Solon in 1991, said longtime MnDOT spokesman John Bray, now retired after three decades with the agency.

"A lit-up Blatnik Bridge would be a symbol of uniting Duluth with Superior and would serve as a sign that we welcome visitors," Goldfine wrote in another 1991 letter on the topic to city and state officials.

The letter was written as planning was under way for a massive overhaul of the Blatnik Bridge in 1993-94, when the span was completely closed to traffic for months.

The lights were installed and -- after a long delay caused by water leaks into the fixtures -- they officially debuted on Nov. 21, 1996.

Since that time, they've become a familiar sight in the Twin Ports -- and they've been subjected to a lot of abuse from Mother Nature and passing traffic.

"The lights are exposed to the harshest environmental conditions that there can be: rain, wind, snow, salt that can cause corrosion ... vibrations from heavy trucks. It's pretty intensive maintenance," Tardy said.

Now the fixtures have to come down to allow for sandblasting and painting of gusset plates this summer. They'll be saved for possible reuse; the corroded conduit and wiring won't be.

The annual expense of operating the lights is about $15,000 to $20,000 -- also paid for entirely by Minnesota at present, though Tardy said that's of less concern than splitting the more-significant restoration cost. There's a chance operating costs could be reduced with the use of LEDs or other, newer lighting technology if the lights are reinstalled.

Tardy said he's hoping the return of the Blatnik lights is less an "if" and more a matter of "when."

"I'm optimistic that we're going to be able to make this work," Tardy said.

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