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States narrow options for Blatnik Bridge replacement

Transportation officials have narrowed down the options for a new bridge as they begin an environmental assessment of the project.

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Area residents discuss remaining options for replacing the Blatnik Bridge with transportation officials on Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the Superior Public Library.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation officials have narrowed the options to replace the Blatnik Bridge as they move into the environmental assessment stage in the project.

Officials from the state transportation departments presented those options during the sixth public meeting on the project Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the Superior Public Library.

"We looked at the universe of alternatives, down to feasible, down to reasonable," said Pat Huston, project manager with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "Now we're getting down to what will finally go into the environmental evaluation and the final document."

He said the goal is to present the preferred alternative to the public in the fall of 2023, before the bridge moves into the preliminary design phase.

Two potential alignments and one interchange were selected for consideration of traffic on the bridge, as the departments begin the environmental assessment required before preliminary design for the new bridge begins.

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The options that remain would utilize the existing bridge's alignment for construction or would call for building the new bridge west of the existing bridge. The west-existing combination option would have landings in Duluth and Superior veering to where they land now.

"To sum it up, bridge alignments that reduced access or limited waterfront slip access … were eliminated from further consideration," Huston said. He said it isn't reasonable or feasible to find additional working waterfront property with big industry on both sides of the existing bridge.

"The east alignment, I thought that was a winner from the start, but when we moved through the east side, it hit a lot of businesses on Connors Point and it didn't make it through,” said Vince Gastoni, vice president of roads and structures with Parsons, which is working with MnDOT and WisDOT on the project.

Huston said the advantage of using the existing alignment is the currently unfunded project could be done in phases and the construction would only take about five years, but it could still impact one business on Connors Point and once construction begins, the bridge would be closed for the duration.

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A board at the Superior Public Library shows the bridge alignments that will be considered for replacing the Blatnik Bridge as Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation officials start an environmental assessment of the project.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

The west-existing alignment could take up to two more years to construct, but portions of it could be built while the Blatnik Bridge remains open to traffic, he said. The estimated closure time would be reduced by 1½ years, Huston said.

Both alignments will be considered with and without a shared-use path for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, Huston said.

The advantage of the shared-use path, Huston said, is that it could be built wide enough to accommodate bridge inspection equipment and eliminate the need for lane closures or having people working in traffic lanes during inspections, as well as other flexibilities.

While either path for the new bridge would land at Garfield Avenue in Duluth, the interchange under consideration in Superior — an offset diamond interchange — would direct most traffic to U.S. Highway 53 and the interstate bridge would no longer end on Hammond Avenue.

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A direct connection to Hammond Avenue was eliminated, Huston said, because it has limited ability to improve vehicle safety and mobility. Going that route would have had the most impacts and would have required residential relocations. It would have also caused a steeper grade to the bridge and a lower clearance over Howards Pocket, where Fraser Shipyards is located. But the interchange under consideration would still allow access to and from Hammond and Tower avenues and U.S. Highway 53.

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A board at the Superior Public Library shows the only interchange that will be considered for the environmental assessment of a project to replace the Blatnik Bridge. Pat Houston of MnDOT said while the interchange is shown with roundabouts, they were included because roundabouts have a big footprint and would show the broadest impact. No decision has been made on whether roundabouts would be used, he said.
Shelley Nelson / Superior Telegram

Access to U.S. Highway 53 at Grand and Clough avenues would be eliminated, but no decisions have been made about the highway access at Catlin Avenue, Huston said.

The interchange makes sense from a driving perspective, but it also makes sense because it minimizes the potential impacts, Gastoni said. Officials have been in contact with the businesses between North 3rd Street and U.S. Highway 53 in the area of Grant Avenue where the project would require additional land for the right of way.

Only one interchange is being considered as the environmental assessment required by the National Environmental Policy Act will look at the social, economic and environmental impacts of the project.

The public can comment on the project through Jan. 6 at dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/blatnik-bridge .

Huston said construction could begin as early as 2026, when the final design for the project is planned, but he said the goal currently is 2027. Transportation officials in both states have applied for a $900 million competitive grant for the new bridge, which would cover about half the cost of the $1.8 billion project if awarded.

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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