Editor's note: This story was updated on Wednesday, Sept. 26 to remove language suggesting replacement as an option for the Bong Bridge.
The Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction and the futures of both the Blatnik and Bong bridges between Duluth and Superior are inextricably linked — and work on them will stretch intermittently into the early 2030s, when the Bong Bridge will be up for major re-decking work.
“They all build on each other,” Jessica Felix said of the three projects — the third of which, the Bong Bridge, was coming up publicly for the first time.
Felix is the Northwest Region deputy director for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. She was speaking Wednesday to a roomful of freight planners and executives at the Twin Ports Freight Showcase at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. The title of her talk was “Bridging Freight between States.”
It’s too soon to say whether the Blatnik Bridge spanning the St. Louis River between Duluth and Superior will require extensive repair or replacement, Felix said, contradicting three years of previous reports focusing on bridge replacement for the Blatnik.
The Minnesota and Wisconsin transportation departments are conducting an ongoing condition assessment of the Blatnik Bridge. A decision on repair or replacement could come as late as 2021, and will rely on data collected in the assessment, Felix said.
Last year, MnDOT scheduled the Blatnik Bridge for major work beginning in 2028 — five years after the completion of the Twin Ports Interchange project and about five years before the Bong Bridge project would come into play.
The existing assumptions are that the Blatnik Bridge will use the same alignment, Felix said, and that shipping will not be disrupted by bridge repair or construction.
“Even if we have to assemble part of it on the side and float it over,” Duane Hill, director of MnDOT’s Duluth office and northeast district, said.
At 52 spans and 7,980 feet, the Blatnik “is a very long bridge,” Felix said.
The Blatnik has twice undergone emergency gusset plate repairs since 2008, and its maximum vehicle weight has dropped incrementally from 77 tons in 2016 to 40 tons this summer.
“It’s our goal and objective to keep this bridge at 40 tons, if not to increase it,” Felix said about an every-four-years maintenance plan continuing in 2021.
Like the Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction project at the confluence of Interstates 35 and 535 and U.S. Highway 53 in Duluth, the bridge projects would bring stakeholders into the engineering and planning processes. A question was raised of the Blatnik Bridge being built to go even higher off the water to accommodate traffic into Fraser Shipyards.
“Those are the types of things we look at balancing with what is the need for the highway system, the navigable channel, environmental impacts and any economic impacts?” Felix told the crowd.
Hill spoke mostly about the $343 million Twin Ports Interchange — a project he reported was now “fully funded.” That means replacement of the Garfield Avenue interchange with Interstate 535 will be included as part of the other extensive work scheduled to take place at the interchange. All told, 33 bridges, mostly elevated sections of highway, are being addressed by the Twin Ports Interchange project — 2.6 percent of MnDOT bridge deck statewide, Hill said.
Hill described the stretch leading into the Garfield Avenue interchange as “the first and last mile into the port.” Under the current configuration, heavy freight out of the port, like the wind turbine parts being moved through Duluth, can take an extra 2-4 hours to get out of Duluth, Hill said.
For the Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction, attention is being paid to creating greater ease of movement.
“We want to increase the time of the merging distances,” Hill said, uttering a notion regular travelers of that area will understand completely.
Engineering through 2020 on the Twin Ports Interchange is 60 percent complete, and engineering through 2022 is at 30%, Hill said.
“The name of the project had to change because we did not want to build another ‘can of worms,’” Hill said.
The Blatnik Bridge was incorporated last year into the 10-year plan by the MnDOT, which is targeting replacement for 2028 at a cost share between $170 million and $230 million. The state of Wisconsin will be on the hook for the other half of the price tag, setting the current replacement cost at up to $460 million.
Regarding the Bong Bridge, 2024 will be its 40th birthday.
“The Bong Bridge is set for re-deck somewhere in the early 2030s,” Felix said.
MnDOT has the lead on the Blatnik Bridge, and WisDOT the lead on the Bong Bridge, but each state participates financially and technically on both projects.
“We work together to make sure that it’s a seamless system,” she said.
To that end, Felix said the city of Superior is involved in $15 million worth of projects to resurface and repair U.S. 53/East Second Street through Superior in 2020-21. The road is a Superior connector with the Blatnik Bridge.