Will the Old Cedar Avenue bridge ever reopen?

Old bridge

Bloomington residents, left to right, Gary Weyrauch, John Wiggins and Lori Pommer gaze at the closed bridge over Long Meadow Lake during Gov. Mark Dayton’s visit to the former Ceder Avenue crossing of the Minnesota River valley last fall. (Photo by Paul Groessel – Sun Newpsapers)

 

Ask 10 people what should be done with what’s remaining of the former Cedar Avenue Bridge and you’ll probably get 20 answers.

More than three decades after the former river crossing was abandoned by the state, the Long Meadow Lake portion of the bridge remains as a decaying testament to a simpler time. The bridge, when combined with a separate swing bridge over the Minnesota River, served as the connection between Dakota and Hennepin counties for decades.

The bridge has been the responsibility of Bloomington since 1981, having been abandoned for the Highway 77 overpass of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Nowadays infrastructure wouldn’t be turned over by the state to lower entities of government without some sort of negotiation. In the 1980s, however, it was simply given to Bloomington, without much consideration to its long-term viability, or maintenance, according to Karl Keel, Bloomington’s public works director.

“A lot of people would like to see it preserved,” he admitted.

The Long Meadow Bridge was built in 1920. The five-span through truss camelback bridge is 865 feet long. In less technical terms, it’s old and distinct. Although it has been closed to all forms of access for more than a decade, bicyclists, hikers, bird watchers and photographers all see value to the access the bridge would provide to the river valley, according to Stan Danielson, a founding member of the Bloomington Historical Society and an activist for the bridge.

The value of a bridge over Long Meadow Lake is not a subject of debate. The value of the deteriorating bridge complicates the solution.

The bridge remained open to limited vehicular traffic that utilized it to access the opposite side of the lake in the 1980s, as it provided access to farm fields that once produced corn. The narrow bridge was closed to vehicles in 1993 due to safety concerns, and closed to pedestrians in 2002. “We did not spend lots of money maintaining it,” Keel said.

Maintenance was limited primarily to the bridge decking, but the steel and concrete that has supported the bridge deck for nearly a century is rotted out in many places, according to Jim Gates, the city’s deputy director of public works.

Ask city officials and city council members, and you’ll hear a familiar refrain regarding the bridge: it’s too expensive to rehabilitate on the city’s dime.

Ask historical preservationists about the cost to rehabilitate it and they’ll tell you it won’t be nearly as expensive as the city would have you believe.

Maintaining the bridge as a historic structure has never been a city priority, according to Keel. The bridge is not significant to the city’s pedestrian and bicycle system, but would provide a regional benefit for trail plans on the regional and state level, Keel explained.

Estimates to replace the bridge peg the cost, including a 50-year maintenance plan, at $4.3 million. To rehabilitate the bridge would cost in the ballpark of $12 million, according to city estimates. Rehabilitation could be done in two ways, with a higher up front expenditure that requires less in long-term maintenance, or vice versa. Either way the price tag winds up in the vicinity of $12 million.

Proponents of preservation argue the city’s estimates are high, yet as owners of the bridge the city wants to be conservative in calculating the cost, Keel said.

Cost estimates for many civil engineering and construction projects are easy to estimate, according to City Manager Mark Bernhardson. Unique projects, such as the forthcoming skyway that will connect Mall of America to properties along the south side of Killebrew Drive, cost estimating is less precise. Rehabilitation is more challenging because it is difficult to determine the overall condition of the structure prior to commencing the project. A higher contingency fund is needed for unexpected rehabilitation, he noted.

The city has funding available to replace the bridge. The challenge is that any bridge project triggers a federal review. That federal review considers the historic nature of the structure, the opinion of which comes from the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. If the state office determines preservation is financially reasonable, and it has in the past, then replacement is off the table. The city has been willing to pursue replacement of the bridge, with the ultimate goal of finding a new owner for the bridge, but the city has been unwilling to finance rehabilitation at its higher cost, Keel explained.

So what are the odds of finding another owner? The city has had discussions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, but it’s not as simple as handing over the bridge. Although the federal agency manages lands along the river, the city owns property along the river, too, and any transfer of bridge ownership would likely require a transfer of land ownership, too, Keel explained.

There’s also a possibility that 2013 will be the year the state legislature considers financing for the bridge. Bloomington Rep. Ann Lenczewski has long been a proponent of a bridge solution, and last fall organized a rally attended by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Broad, diverse interest

There is wide, diverse interest in seeing the bridge restored or replaced. The bridge would provide bicyclists with a connection to a bicycle bridge along the Highway 77 bridge. The highway bridge winds bicyclists down a path toward the abandoned Long Meadow Bridge, leaving bicyclists no way of getting to Bloomington, other than illegally accessing the fenced off Long Meadow Bridge, which happens periodically, according to Danielson.

Danielson is a member of The Geezer Squad, an informal group that meets most weeks to discuss area history.

old bridge

The Long Meadow Bridge, one of two that helped vehicles move between Hennepin and Dakota counties, has been closed for more than a decade, with no immediate sign that will change. (Photo courtesy of city of Bloomington)

Fueled by Danielson’s interest in information about an 1885 photo of the Long Meadow Gun Club, the Geezers assembled to discuss the history of the area. A meeting to share information pertaining to an 1800s photo turned into a recurring gathering to discuss other aspects of the city’s history, and those conversations inevitably turned to the old bridge. The group soon found itself researching and discussing the structure with anyone and everyone that was interested, attending meetings of public officials at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and sharing information via email with groups and organizations that have an interest in the bridge, Danielson explained.

Danielson knows hikers, bird watchers and photographers that also want a solution for the bridge. “There really are a lot of people who are interested in this thing,” he said.

Those who live on Bloomington’s east side care about historical preservation, but most of the Geezers would agree that if there is a substantial cost differential between rehabilitation and replacement, they’d settle for replacement in order to gain the access that has been lost for more than a decade.

“The east side used that bridge,” Danielson said. “We’re Minnesotans and we’re water people.”

The city has held fast to the position that it’s a regional asset that needs a regional solution, and City Councilmember Jack Baloga agrees.

Since taking office a little more than a year ago, approximately one-third of the emails he receives are regarding the bridge, and more than 95 percent of them come from residents of cities other than Bloomington, he said.

bridge decay

The bridge that once helped vehicles cross the river valley is showing signs of old age. (Photo courtesy of city of Bloomington)

A solution is needed, if for no other reason than the fact the bridge looks like it is ready to fall over. “It’s a rusting hulk,” Baloga said.

Information about the bridge is available on the city’s website at bit.ly/lmbridge.

Photographer John Weeks assembled a comprehensive photo tour of the bridge, available at bit.ly/johnweeks.

 

Contact Mike Hanks at mike.hanks@ecm-inc.com

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