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Four years and counting: Wisconsin-Minnesota border residents still without bridge following 2018 flood

Residents of Foxboro, Holyoke and Superior want Douglas County Highway W to reopen four years after a storm cut off access between Oliver and Foxboro.

Douglas County Highway W bridge.jpg
The Douglas County Highway W bridge over the Nemadji River has been out since 2018, leaving residents near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border frustrated with alternatives to getting around the area. The bridge abutments were washed out when log debris blocked the river's flow during heavy rain in June 2018.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram
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DOUGLAS COUNTY — Residents near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border have been waiting more than four years for a flood-damaged county highway in their neighborhood to be repaired.

And they’ll be waiting even longer as Douglas County officials seek funding through a federal hazard mitigation program to improve the bridge over the Nemadji River on County Highway W.

The bridge has washed out several times in recent years because log debris gathers upstream of the bridge. During heavy rain, the debris turns the bridge into a dam, forcing rushing water around the bridge and washing out the abutments, said county board Chair Mark Liebaert.

“W is the worst road in the county,” Liebaert said.

Nemadji river bridge.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

During the Father's Day storm of 2018, the bridge washed out, said Jason Jackman, highway commissioner.

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“There was numerous times that happened previously, and what we generally apply for through the state is disaster damage aids … You put it back to the way it was before the rain started."

After completing several repairs on the bridge at a cost of almost $200,000 each time since 2012, Jackman said it didn't make sense to repair the bridge again without improving it. So, he reached out to the state to see if there was a way to make that happen.

Big inconvenience

For residents living in Foxboro and points west in Minnesota, the bridge washout means they have to drive miles out of their way to get to destinations that were just a few minutes away before the flood.

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A sign alerts drivers that the bridge is out along Douglas County Road W on Wednesday, Oct. 5, south of Oliver.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Scott Boustead lives north of the bridge on Sitek Road in the town of Superior. When his mother, who lived in Foxboro, got sick, he said it was a struggle to get around the bridge to see her. Instead of zipping across the bridge, Boustead had to make a slow drive down the windy, narrow, gravel Dedham Road, a town of Superior road that runs between county highways C and B. A trip that took about 10 minutes on County Highway W took about 30 minutes on Dedham Road, he said.

His mother died in 2021.

"When she passed away, by time I got there, the coroner was already there," Boustead said.

Rebecca Olson, who lives about 4 miles from her parents on County Highway W, understands the problem. She lives on the south side of the bridge, while her parents live north of it. So did her grandmother. When her grandmother was alive, Olson took trips daily — and sometimes twice a day — to help care for her grandmother, a 15-mile drive to cover the 4-mile distance.

Since her grandmother’s death in November 2021, Olson said she only makes the trip to visit her parents a couple of times a week.

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Olson's uncle, Gerald Nikstad, also lives south of the bridge. He said he doesn't see his sister, Olson's mother, as much as he used to.

“I don't see her very often anymore because you can't go across the bridge. It's a long drive around," Nikstad said.

Many use Dedham Road to get around the area, but there are limitations, according to Della Pleski of Foxboro. She said the narrow road is difficult for two pickup trucks to pass.

"And if you're going to pull a trailer somewhere, we wouldn't even do it," Pleski said. "We just go to (Wisconsin Highway) 35. It ends up being another 45 minutes. It may not seem like much, but 45 minutes each way — you're talking about how many extra hours you're driving back and forth."

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Woody debris collects around the supports for a bridge that crosses the Nemadji River on Douglas County Highway W. The road has been closed since 2018 after heavy rain washed out the approaches to the bridge.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

Health and safety

Douglas County Emergency manager Dave Sletten said the county maintains local databases and communicates regularly with local emergency responders to make sure they are aware the bridge is out.

The bridge hasn’t posed a challenge for the Town of Superior Volunteer Fire Department, which serves residents on both sides of it. Fire Chief Darryl Fiegle said the department hasn’t had calls for service in that area and wouldn’t routinely travel on County Highway W because of the road's grade.

But the safety aspect worries people who live in the area.

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"It seems like whatever commuting you do, whether it's going to Superior, traveling to work, what have you, it's that way," said Chris Reuille, who lives on County Highway W, as he pointed north. "Let's say emergencies. People are getting older every day. An ambulance, I don't know how many times they've come and get to that bridge. It's major to come around."

Tom and Bonnie Williams of Foxboro are counting their blessings after a medical emergency last year. The ambulance they called had to be rerouted from the closed bridge.

Tom said it took 1½ to 2 hours for the ambulance to arrive at their home on County Highway B, west of County Highway W.

"That was in 2021; he had a big blood clot," Bonnie said. "If it would have been any longer, he would have lost his leg." Medical personnel told Bonnie that if they had arrived an hour later the outcome would have been different.

Mary Munn, of Holyoke, Minnesota, shaved 14 miles off her commute to Duluth when she discovered County Highway W.

When the benzene spill occurred in 1992, and again when Wisconsin Highway 35 was washed out near Pattison Park, the county road provided an alternate route, Munn said.

Dan Corbin, chairman of the Summit Town Board, remembered the detour after the benzene spill, too.

“That was another way to get around the spill,” he said.

Calls to repair

Four local units of government have adopted resolutions this year urging Douglas County officials to repair the bridge approaches that have been out since 2018: The Carlton County Board of Commissioners and Holyoke Township in Minnesota, and the Superior and Summit town boards.

Jackman said his goal has been to fix the bridge so it won't wash out the next time the area has a 4- to 6-inch rain event, a project likely to cost about $1.25 million. Officials applied for a Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities grant, but weren't approved for funding. They are currently waiting to hear whether the county will be approved for a Hazard Mitigation Program Grant to redesign the road. The deadline for the grant is Nov. 5, and Jackman said it could take up to six months after that to learn if the county's project would be funded.

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Plants grow in the gravel that covers Douglas County Highway W near a bridge over the Nemadji River on Thursday, Sept. 29. The road has been closed since June 2018 after a storm washed out the approaches to the bridge.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

If the county isn't approved for funding at that point, Jackman said the county is likely to repair the road to pre-flood conditions.

"That's a conversation that I suppose we'll have once we find out," he said. "If we're not approved, I'm going to say 'Do you want to do this or do you just want to spend a couple hundred thousand and get it back up to pre-flood?’"

The estimated cost to improve the bridge would account for half the money the county borrows annually for projects to maintain 377 miles of two-lane county highways. Allocating available money to improving the bridge would impact plans to repair other roads in the county, Jackman said.

Residents agree with Jackman's plan to build the bridge back stronger.

"I would love for it to be fixed, but fixed properly so we don't have this same thing happen in the near future," Olson said.

Superior redesigns for resiliency

The same storm that took out the bridge on County Highway W turned Woodlawn Road in Superior to rubble further downstream on the Nemadji River.

After repairing the road several times for the same reason, the city of Superior took a different approach to repairing the road, re-engineering it so the road wouldn’t wash out again.

The city redesigned the road to function like a spillway on a dam. Construction got underway for the grant-funded project in the fall of 2018.

(Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com) Construction vehicles sit on Woodlawn Road on Monday, Oct. 1, in Superior. Reconstruction gets underway this week with the goal of reopening the road in early November.
Construction vehicles sit on Woodlawn Road on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in Superior. Reconstruction of the road involved a redesign to make the road act like a dam spillway, which held up when the road flooded again on Oct. 1, 2019.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

It’s a similar approach that Douglas County highway commissioner Jason Jackman said he would like to take to repair the bridge on County Highway W. The proposed $1.25 million repair would redesign the road so the river could overtop it without washing out the bridge approaches.

“Generally the south approach washes out every time the river overtops the road,” Jackman said. “We’re trying to design it so that doesn’t happen.”

Officials would have to close the road when the river overtops the bridge and would likely have to remove debris before reopening the road, but a new design could spare the county and taxpayers the repeated expense of repairing the road after heavy rain.

The Nemadji River begins overtopping Woodlawn Road at 22.1 feet, said Todd Janigo, Superior’s public works director.

On Oct. 1, 2019, less than a year after construction, the Nemadji River crested at 25.79 feet, according National Weather Service data, overtopping Woodlawn by more than 3 feet.

Janigo said despite the flooding, there was no damage to the road.

“We may have had to sweep the road and grade the shoulder a bit, but nothing significant,” he said.

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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