St. Croix Crossing Photo Gallery Part II

October 16, 2016 at 8:34 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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Where the new loop trail will be


Rock foundations on the loop trail


The shoddy mill at it’s new location along the loop trail




Minnesota Approach


Minnesota Approach


Segment on the move


Casting Yard and Bridge


Approach to the new Wisconsin roundabout


View from WIsconsin


Wisconsin approach road


Scout Camp Road overpass


More Wisconsin approach work


Eastbound MN on-ramp


Minnesota piers


Bridge over MN 95


Going horizontal


Minnesota overlook


Looking away from the Bridge in Wisconsin


A bit more horizontal


Scout Camp Road overpass


Pier and MN approach


More horizontal yet


Casting Yard and Bridge


Casting Yard


View from Wisconsin


Loop trail tunnel in Wisconsin




Loop Trail in MN about to be paved


More segments added


Another view from Wisconsin


On the boat for the second bridge tour. Water in the camera lens…






Wisconsin View




Minnesota Overlook




Bridge Towers


Minnesota Approach


Bridge Towers


View from Wisconsin


New Bridge from Old


Bridge Towers


Almost Done


View from Pioneer Park




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St. Croix Crossing Photo Gallery Part I

October 15, 2016 at 7:51 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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The St. Croix Crossing is one of the regions biggest investments in regional mobility in some time. I wrote a two part series about the much-too-long story of finally getting it built, so here simply are the best of the 1000 or so construction photos I have.


A nice sign on either side


The Ghost Neighborhood on the Minnesota Side. All the houses were removed for the bridge in the 1990s before the car-haters stopped the bridge for a while.


The Shoddy Mill, a set of historic buildings in the ghost neighborhood. The original contract to move these was cancelled when the bridge was stopped.


The Ghost Neighborhood is cleared out


Minnesota Highway 36. The New Bridge will go straight ahead


Where the bridge will touch down in Wisconsin


The approach road will go to the right of this farm


More work on the ghost neighborhood


Starting to tear up MN 36


The soon to be demolished Beach St. overpass


Looking north on MN 95. After the enviro-nuts stopped the bridge the first time money had to be spent patching up this overpass. It’s now about to be demolished.


The new Beach Street overpass going up


The new Beach Street Overpass


MN 36 and MN 95


MN 36 and MN 95, this will eventually be the off-ramp to MN 95, the bridge will on the left.


Beach Street Overpass


Looking north on MN 95


Looking west- the new bridge will be directly overhead


Clearing starting on the Wisconsin side


A slightly different angle


Bridge Pier rising


From the new Beach Street overpass looking towards Minnesota


And towards Wisconsin


MN 36 from a ways back looking towards Wisconsin


A little higher..


WI 35 closed for overpass work


Mess of signals at MN 36 and Osgood


MN 95 coming along


The casting yard taking shape for the smaller segments on the Minnesota approach. The large river segments were cast off-site and taken in barges


Bridge abutment


Minnesota approach piers


And a little higher yet…


The old bridge from the water


New bridge from the water


More piers


And yet another view of the piers


The barge coal unloading terminal, probably the ugliest structure ever. The dock was used as part of the project; at the conclusion the dock and machinery will all be removed.


Closeup of the piers


Samples of rebar on display at the tour boat


Segments in the on-site casting yard


The casting yard


Yet another view from the overlook


Looking towards the bridge at Wisconsin


The other direction at Wisconsin


Telephoto view from Wisconsin


The new bridge looking though the old bridge


The King plant and the Minnesota approach span

On to Part II

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The New Hastings Bridge Construction Photos

October 15, 2016 at 5:11 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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The Hastings High Bridge was built in the early 1950s to replace the old Spiral Bridge. Like the Spiral Bridge it became an icon of the town, but eventually age and increasing traffic demands took it’s toll. It was the only two-lane stretch on the expressway from Hastings to downtown St. Paul, causing a horrific traffic congestion problem. Residents clamored for a new bridge, but it was a low priority for Mn/DOT. This was the time when Molnau was appointed as a stooge by governor Pawlenty specifically to slash the agencies budget to shreds. The bridge could have probably been patched up another decade or too so nothing meaningful on a replacement was done. Then another bridge fell…

Alhough it’s hard to say if Mn/DOT cost cutting was the reason for the collapse of the I-35W bridge (one proposal to reinforce it was rejected because there were fears it might actually weaken it, not just for cost reasons) , it was an easy scapegoat. The legislature overrode Pawlenties veto of a gasoline tax increase throwing money into Mn/DOT’s lap to replace all the structurally deficient bridges in the state, and thus things got moving. Hastings decided they wanted a new signature bridge, although this choice was not without controversy, some wanted a vanilla girder bridge to make it easier for motorists to see the river and not detract from the buildings). Contractors were invited to bid on either tied arch span or a cable stayed bridge, and a tied arch span was what was bid on. Although the decision was aesthetic, unlike the Lowry Bridge there was at least an engineering reason not to built a generic bridge, an arch allowed a wider channel for barges.

The new bridge was only built to be four lanes. Although it’s forecast to be congested at the end of the planning horizon, building six lanes would have just moved the problem to once traffic wound up on Vermillion Street, and the capacity problem there would never be solved. Ultimately I think a bypass should be built when congestion mounts to get through traffic off the bridge and Vermillion Street. I also think the old bridge should have been saved; it was offered to the city of Hastings but they didn’t want it. They’re still lamenting the destruction of the spiral bridge and in time I think they will wish they had preserved this one.

Hastings Bridge Construction Sign

Construction Sign

Hastings High Bridge

Profile of the old High Bridge


Oblique View

H.D. Hudson Building

The H.D Hudson building. In later years they made plastic spray nozzles. The company was founded in 1905, and was located in this historic building by the bridge. The bridge required demolition of a nondescript warehouse attached to it, rather than rebuild the warehouse on site the company took the money and moved to the industrial park on the south end of town in 2011. Three years later, by now mainly located in Chicago, they closed down their Hastings manufacturing entirely. The city of Hastings owns the old buildings and is still trying to figure out a reuse for them.


Bridge Mural


The arch under construction in a park nearby


Showing where the arch was built in relation to the bridge.


Concrete Piers


Under the bridges


The arch was loaded onto barges for the short trip to the new bridge. Here it’s floating on the water, framed by the concrete of the new bridge


Equipment to help line up and lift the arch into place


The arch slowly going up


Spectators to see the arch being raised. I was able to see it as it was delayed a week so I was back from a vacation in North Carolina


Steel and Sunset


The arch in position, taken later that winter


Opening Day for the New Span. At this point they had shifted southbound traffic onto the new bridge while northbound traffic was on the old bridge


Traffic Configuration for a few hours that day. As you can see the new bridge carried two lane two-way traffic for a while until the final segement could be tied into the old road. Notice the jog to avoid the old bridge. In 100 years the next bridge will probably be built straight inline with the street.


People waiting for the opening ceremony and to walk the old bridge. It was delayed when one of the guest speakers got stuck in traffic on the bridge…


The Mayor of Hastings speaking


Walking on the old bridge


Another of the old bridge. I was one of the last dozen members of the public ever to be on the bridge as I was just ahead of the cops finally shooing us off.




Steel and Sky


Demolition. A sad site to loose such a beautiful structure

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Highway Odds and Ends

October 4, 2016 at 11:53 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment

Here’s some random interesting odds and ends I’ve discovered in my travels around the state

The 100 foot flagpole

During the installation of the tower lighting installation at I-494 and MN 100 a few years ago, workers decked out the towers with flags until they were finished. As recently as a decade ago, there were less than 10 such installations in Minnesota, but that number has almost tripled.


High Mast Light as a flagpole

The Superwide Median

This peaceful country scene is actually in the middle of Interstate 90. Southeastern Minnesota was missed by the last glaciation, resulting in streams eroding deep V-shaped valleys. This causes problems if  you need to build a superhighway through the area. In this case, I-90 needed to descend from the top to the bottom, and the only way to do it was to put one lane on either side of the valley. Although you can’t really see the freeway from this angle, you can see the sides of the valley on either side of the picture.


This is in the Middle of I-90 In Southeastern Minneaota

First Mississippi River Bridge

The significance of this otherwise unremarkable bridge on MN 200 is that it’s the first real highway bridge on the mighty Mississippi. Before this bridge the only crossings are highway culvert, a pedestrian bridge, and the famous stepping stones at the source (actually piled on top of a dam). This is looking east, the Mississippi flows north from right to left, and there is a canoe landing visible at the left side of the picture. Itasca State Park starts immediately to the right of this photo.

FIrst Mississippi River Bridge on MN 200

FIrst Mississippi River Bridge on MN 200

A Minnesota State Highway In Wisconsin

MN 23 cuts through a two block long stretch of Wisconsin on it’s way to Duluth. This stretch is maintained by Minnesota, and there are no state line signs. This is a view looking northeast into Wisconsin; the sign at left says “Carlton County

Minnesota Highway 23 in Wisconsin

MN Highway 23… In Wisconsin

Slayton Crash Memorial

On August 31, 1949, two cars packed with teenagers plowed into each other in the fog on the gentle curve at the south end of town. 12 out of the 13 were killed in what is arguably the nation’s deadliest two car collision. The incidene t gave the town notariety that lasted for decades, long after the highway was rerouted around the edge of town.
Originally there was a billboard memorializing the site, but over the years it deteriorated.

As the generation that can remember firsthand is passing, they found it fit to erect this more permanent memorial. The metal “X marks the spot- Think!- Please Drive Safely” signs are the same ones used by South Dakota since the early 80’s to mark DWI crash scenes, but are derived from an older design that used to be used by automobile insurance companies.

The bronze plaque reads:

April 21 1940
Our Nation’s most tragic car accident

Leo Egge – 18, Carl Falk – 21, Ruth Fisher – 15,
Wayne Gamble – 15,Cecil Jensen  – 23, Everett Johnson – 16,
George Larson – 20, Hollis Luft – 21, Gordon Meyers – 22,
Irene Schwab – 18, Harold Tuynman – 18, Lorens Tuynman – 19

Only one survived
Elmer Meyers – 18

Ski Passes

You have bridges for cars, trains, and pedestrians, but here are some unique ones: An overpass and underpass for skiers. Lutsen Resort is built on both sides of a valley with a road down the bottom, so it’s inevitable that skiers will have to cross at some points. The overpass is for a blue-square run called appropriately “Bridge Run”. The underpass is for a blue-square called “Brule”. In the background you can see part of the main chalet area


Ski Run Overpass

SKi Run Underpass

Ski Run Underpass

Welcome To Pleasantville

In the movie Pleasantville, they showed a map where all the towns named Pleasantville are supposedly located, but they missed this real one in Southeastern Iowa. And this is an appropriate name for the place. Despite the modern cars, the town looks and feels like a throwback to simpler times.

When you’re used to driving in the Twin Cities, it’s a culture shock to explore these parts, where people use more than one finger to wave at you and speed limits actually mean something. The city is where I wound up, the country is what I like.


Pleasantville, Iowa

Tuber’s Big Green Signs

The Apple River is an extremely popular place to go tubing near the Twin Cities; there are three different resorts that do cater to renting tubes. Near the end of the ride, these overhead signs direct riders which direction to steer to return their tubes. The signs read:

Apple River    /\
Campground   |                   River’s Edge
Float Rite          |                   Exit Here
Park                    |                   ————->

Signs on Apple River

SIgns on Apple River

Worthington Truck-Bridge Crash

Early Monday June 2nd 2003, a truck rammed the Nobles County 9 bridge over I-90, shutting down both the bridge and the westbound interstate. Both the truck and the $300,000 worth of soil analysis equipment it was carrying were declared total losses. Both the driver and passenger suffered only minor injuries. Fortunately the bridge had been closed for redecking and guardrail replacement.

Within two days, a local contractor stabilized the bridge by using box culverts from their yard and steel bridge beams from the Mn/DOT storage facility in Mankato, allowing a single lane of traffic underneath. Within 90 days, the bridge was jacked up and the damaged pier replaced and everything was business as usual.

These pictures were sent to me by Robert Spoerl, who got them from someone at Mn/DOT. It is my belief that as a product of Mn/DOT they are not copyrighted.

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The MN-SD-IA Tri-Point

Unlike many state Tri-Points which are underwater or in remote locations, this one is right in the middle of the road. Here’s a younger me standing in Iowas with an arm in Minnesota and South Dakota, and some more pictures of the area. The Monument was originally in the middle of the road but got hit too often, now just a benchmark is in the road and the monument is off to the side


The plaque reads:


Set at the junction of the states of Minnesota, Iowa, and Dakota Territory by
the federal land office survey of Minnesota’s western boundary

Early 1900’s
Removed after partial destruction by vandals

Repaired and reset by adjacent counties at original site under direction
of the US Department of Interior

Broken from base by vehicle traffic

Restored and relocated at this site by the county governments and historical societies of Lyon County, IA.,
Rock County, Minn. and Minnehaha County, S.D. Flush marker set at original location 48 deg 30 min n.l.

Dedicated to the Pioneers of Souixland this 26th day of Octobert 1980

The Gold Cement Slab

This was the last slab of concrete poured on I-9o in Minnesota, near the Blue Earth Rest areas, or for that matter the last slab between Boston and Montana. There was a sign at the rest area explaining it, now it’s gone. The slab itself has had asphalt overlaid on top of it, but is still visible on the shoulder


Gold Cement Slab on I-90

Jefferson Highway Marker

This Marker at the Iowa Border commemorates the completion of the Jefferson Highway in Minnesota and Iowa


Jefferson Highway Marker


The plaque reads:

This marker, dedicated October 28, 1930 by Minnesota Governor Theodore Christianson and Iowa Governor
John Hamill commemorates the completion of the Jefferson Highway Across their states.

The Frank Loyd Wright Gas Station, Cloquet


And Finally, Eagle Mountain, Far From a Highway, but the Highest Point in the state


Eagle Mountain Overlook


Eagle Mountain Summit

The plaque reads:


When Newton H. Winchell, Minnesota state geologist, and Ulysses S Grant II (the president’s son) surveyed this area in the 1890s, they concluded that a peak in the Misquah Hills was the state’s highest point. Using an aneroid barometer they set it’s elevation at 2230 feet. Later comers argued that Eagle Mountain which Winchell and Grant did not measure and can be seen from the Misquah Hill was higher.

In 1961 A United States Department of the Interior survey team remeasured, using aerial photographs and controlled benchmarks. They found Eagle Mountain to be 2301 feet, making it Minnesota’s highest point. The also determined that the first Misquah Hill peak is surpassed by another unnamed summit 2265 feet above sea level located in section 19 of T93N, R1W, in the … Cook County area. The state’s lowest point is Lake Superior which has an elevation of  602 feet.

The igneous rock composing Eagle Mountain is as old as the Duluth Gabbro, which Geologists estimate at over a billions years in age.

Erected by the Minnesota Historical Society

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A New Life for the Old Cedar Bridge

October 1, 2016 at 11:52 am | Posted in Abandoned Highways, Bicycling, Bloomington and Suburbia, Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment


[Originally Published May 2016]

The Old Cedar Bridge is now open, but it’s been a long road to get to this point. THis article takes a look at the restoration and reopening of the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge. (I’ve chosen to consistently refer to it as the “Old Cedar Bridge,” it was originally known as the “Long Meadow Bridge” to distinguish it from the river span).

Old Cedar Ave Bridge Around 2002

The Old Cedar Bridge, around 2002

Inception of the Bridge

Although the bridge was only part of the state trunk highway system for a generation, history is intertwined with it. In the old days, if you wanted to travel south from Minneapolis, you first had to travel to St. Paul, then cross the High Bridge and head out on the old Dodd Road. Then you could take a road through Farmington to Northfield to Faribault to Albert Lea that eventually became part of the Jefferson Highway and later on was designated Trunk Highway #1. Directly south of Minneapolis lay nothing but ferries (that had existed since the 1850s) and routes suitable for local travel.

It wasn’t long until demand for improvements were made. Around 1890 two new bridges were funded by the state legislature as part of a generation-long period of increasing state involvement in roads before the formal establishment of the state highway system. One bridge replaced the ferry at Bloomington Ferry Road, and one extended Cedar Avenue across the river. Although the river spans were long-lasting steel swing bridges, the original bridge over Long Meadow Lake was a rudimentary wooden trestle. These choices were not without controversy. Minneapolis business interests favored a crossing at Lyndale Avenue, the most direct route to the south. It was thought that extending Cedar Avenue would be of more benefit to St. Paul, which already had well established roads to the South, and that Bloomington Ferry was way out of the way.

During the 1910s, it became obvious that the automobile was the wave of the future for personal travel, and trucks for commerce was imminent, and demand for more and better roads continued. Although the marked auto trails system provided consistent guidance, actual maintenance fell to a labyrinthine assortment of agencies, and the maintenance was anything but consistent. Momentum grew for the state to assume maintenance of roads of statewide significance, and the Minnesota Highway Commission was formed in 1911. The state provided aid for major roads and standardized plans for bridges. In turn structures needed to meet state standards, which the Old Cedar Bridge obviously did not. In 1912 the Dunn Amendment was passed, providing for changes to the Minnesota constitution to allow a trunk highway system. In 1917 the Minnesota Department of Highways was formed with Charles M. Babcock as the first commissioner, and in 1920 the state constitution was amended. Finally in 1921 legislation was passed and the trunk highway system debuted.

With regards to the Bloomington area, two more bridges were planned as part of this ramp-up of state involvement in major highways. A crossing at Lyndale Avenue and the replacement of the wooden trestle on Cedar Avenue with today’s steel structure. World War I delayed building, but after the war plans resumed. The original plan still seemed to be that Cedar Avenue would be the main route southward from Minneapolis; my 1920 map shows a proposed road between the bridge and the existing north-south road to the High Bridge and Farmington and it was paved from Minneapolis to the new bridge.

Proposed Cutoff from Minneapolis to the main north-south highway at Farmington

But Babcock favored Lyndale Avenue, replacing an old ferry at the foot of Hopkins Road. Then focus shifted to improving the even more direct route, first with a cutoff from the bridge to Farmington (what is now County 50), then a direct route south to Faribault which became US 65 and then I-35. Here’s the trunk highway system about 1925, after all the routes that were planned were actually laid out. Route 1 was the main route north and south of the metro, with cutoffs from Minneapolis (Routes 50 and 63) which took a few years to implement leading to it.


Trunk Highway System about 1925. The Farmington Cutoff between Lyndale Avenue and the main trunk highway at Farmington had been built as Route 50, and note that the Bloomington Ferry Bridge was the main route to the southwest leaving Cedar Avenue left to local traffic.



Charles Merritt Babcock

As a side note, despite Babcock’s role in advocating and creating the trunk highway and his national profile (he was president of the American Association of Highway Officials) his career was cut short. As evidenced that almost from the beginning politicians have fancied themselves as highway engineers, Babcock was fired by Governor Floyd B. Olson for refusing to accept an absolutely massive expansion of the trunk highway system. Some of which, like MN 100 Beltline or MN 55 west of downtown, were worthy candidates. But many of which were both then and today extremely dubious inclusions for the trunk highway network. This included a portion of MN 65 through the north woods that sees and average annual daily total traffic of 30, and spurs to serve the unincorporated hamlet of Island View and a private resort on Lake of the Woods. Today, I doubt many people know or care who Babcock Trail was named after and his legacy to the state.

The Bridge Opens

In late 1920 the Old Cedar Bridge opened, at the cost of $114,940. It was Hennepin County Bridge #55, but also assigned a state bridge number, #3145. It was a maintenance nightmare from the beginning. and there were calls for its replacement as soon as 1956. Ten foot lanes may have been adequate in the early days when the only traffic was a car now and then, and semi trucks weren’t as prevalent. Early trunk highways had 9 foot lanes as standard. But even by the 1950s it was considered awkwardly narrow, and both the railing and structural elements being hit by vehicles was a regular occurrence.

Although neglected, this neglect also led to its preservation, as the old Lyndale Bridge was demolished when I-35W opened. The bridge wasn’t even part of the trunk highway system until MN 36 was extended in the mid 1950s. In 1962 the concrete deck was replaced with a wooden one. As late as 1970 there were only around 11,700 vehicles a day using it, but around that time east Bloomington approached becoming fully built out.

As the American Dream crossed the river, regional commuter traffic increase dramatically, and with the Met Stadium and the “New Zoo” there was renewed interest in improvements. Finally in 1980, what long term residents like myself still call the “New Cedar Bridge” opened. The old 1891 swing span across the river was demolished, and the Old Cedar Bridge was transferred to the City of Bloomington, against their wishes, to provide access to the river bottoms.


New Cedar Bridge Invitation

Unlike more recent turnbacks where the road was fully reconstructed, Bloomington got the well-used bridge “as-is.” They did not have the funding or wherewithal to maintain it, so it continued to deteriorate. In 1993 it was closed to motorized vehicles. With no road access, this marked the end of the river bottom farms, and they became part of the wildlife refuge through sale and tax forfeiture. Even without paved trails in the river bottoms, it was still frequently used by bicyclists and pedestrians. Then finally the Old Cedar Bridge was closed to all traffic in 2002, severing a key link for bicycles across the river.

The Bickering Begins

From then on, there was a desire to replace the connection, but the bickering went on for over a decade. Bloomington saw themselves as in the business of transportation, not historic preservation, and sought the cheapest way possible to provide that service. Bloomington has insisted it couldn’t pay for repairs; that it shouldn’t have to do it alone for what is a regional amenity; that it shouldn’t have to deal with something that will require extensive maintenance in the future.

Meanwhile, as early as 1994 there were calls for the preservation. Through-truss bridges aren’t by themselves historic (two are being demolished in the Lanesboro area this year). The Old Cedar Bridge is one of only three truss bridges in Minnesota that predate the trunk highway system, and five sections on a Parker Through-Truss design is uncommon.

Nor was the bridge designed to be aesthetic. Trusses were just the way longer bridges were built in the era of cheap, abundant steel and immature concrete technology; thinking that they look nice came later after most of them were demolished. The New Cedar Bridge (and its contemporary, the Bong Bridge) were the last ones in the area built with massive structural elements above the bridge deck that were driven by engineering needs. The steel arches on the Hastings and Lowry Avenue bridges, and the concrete towers and steel cables on the St. Croix Crossing and Hennepin Avenue Bridge are there because people liked they way they look, and they cost substantially more than a generic concrete bridge would have.

Silverdale Bridge on the Gateway Trail

Another Parker Through-Truss bridge, this one a single section from 1873, now located on the Gateway Trail. The single lane wasn’t a problem with 30 vehicles a day at its longtime location on MN 65 in the north woods at Silverdale.

The original proposal was an earthen causeway to be built in conjunction with a new gas pipeline. Fish and Wildlife said no, so from then on Bloomington pursued funding to demolish the structure and build a new one, which would have been half the cost and easier to maintain. There was a 2008 study, and a bill that would have provided money for demolition and replacement. One idea was to set the old trusses on the new bridge as decoration. Then the bridge got officially designated as historic and in 2013 the federal government made it clear that they would not allow demolition. With only one option now, Bloomington commissioned a 2014 study for rehabilitation, and thanks to longtime local Representative Ann Lenczewski, $14.3 Million in state and federal funds was allocated.

Obviously, the bridge is badly missed, but I hope I have provided an explanation why it took so long to sort things out. Here’s a map of the bridge in context, showing how it and the soon to be built I-35W trail crossing will connect existing and proposed trails in Bloomington and Minneapolis to the rest of the Twin Cities to south of the river.


Bicycle Minnesota River crossings (Green- Existing, Yellow- to be built), and select existing (red) and proposed (black) trails.

The Nuts and Bolts of Restoration

So now that the decision was made to restore it, more decisions had to be made. when restoring an old structure. There’s a lot of philosophical issues and sometimes conflicting goals. You want something functional that will be cost effective to maintain.

The Foundations in the river turned out to in pretty good shape, and will for the most part be left as-is

The Piers and Abutments are not in good shape. Normally with historic restoration you attempt to save as much as practical. However in this case the outer layers of all the piers were peeling off. Saving a historic core in the middle while replacing the concrete on the outside would be technically challenging, and possibly even dangerous to workers while leaving no historic concrete visible. So the decision was made to completely demolish and replicate them, down to using wood boards as forms as was done in the old days to leave a distinctive, rough edge.

The Deck was in even worse shape. This is what led to the closure, and it continued to rot in place. Some photos show how you can see daylight through some of the decking members.  Initial plans were to attempt to repair it, but it soon became evident it was a lost cause. The 2008 proposal was to use laminated wood planks that would be placed side to side, negating the need for steel stringers underneath the deck.

The current plan is to use a special, lightweight modern concrete with a completely redesigned joist and stringer system, . This replicates the original concrete deck, although the asphalt wearing surface will not be applied to save weight and as there is no engineering need. The new lightweight deck system will lessen the wear on the remaining historic, visible parts of the bridge, while still allowing bicycles and pedestrians and the occasional emergency or maintenance vehicle.

The Trusses by contrast are in pretty good shape. One of the chords on the bottom (where it was hit with salt spray) would be only 1% above the required safety factor, so the decision was made to replace it as part of the project rather than the probability of having to come back in the few years and do it anyway, requiring another closure and construction mobilization. Some of the diagonal bracing has been bent by being hit with vehicles; this is not a safety issue and they never bothered to fix them before, but they are being straightened now, as the report notes: “the site of bridge members in this state of distress could cause the public unnecessary concern”

The bridge never had lighting, and they are not adding it now. It was considered, but it was noted that “the refuge is closed after dark.” Obviously the east-west trails will be closed, but it’s an interesting point whether it will be legal to travel north-south across the river. The old bridge had an “Area Closed After Dark” sign on it, but it appears you can use the bridges without leaving city-owned property and the New Cedar Bridge has a light on it for the trail as well as spill from the roadway lights. At any rate there are no street lights on road south of the bridge and as poorly as Bloomington lights their streets, not a good idea to be riding around without a good bicycle light after dark anyway.

As far as color is concerned, we all know the bridge as a rusty brown, which is actually a good match for the painted brown new bridge as well as blending into the natural surroundings. However it will be returned to it’s original dark grey color.

See this beautiful railing from the Holmes Street Bridge in Shakopee?


Holmes Street Bridge Railing

The Old Cedar Avenue Bridge railing is nothing at all like this. In fact it’s nothing but the type of gas pipe you buy at Home Depot. The original bridge was way out in the sticks, so unlike those closer to the city, little thought was given to ornamentation, and as I mentioned in the last part they had no idea they were creating beauty instead of just transportation. This leads to some philosophical and practical issues. Normally you want to save as much of the original structure as possible, but a gas pipe in 1920 looks a lot like a gas pipe in 2016 and virtually all of it would have been replaced already due to collision damage. Note how nondescript and bent out of shape the railing is. Not surprisingly, no one bothered to keep good records as to when they had to go out and replace which small section of it.


Old Cedar Ave Bridge in 2002

Moreover, the original configuration doesn’t meet modern standards for bicycle and pedestrian facilities–it’s not high enough and there’s too much space in-between the rails. So the what’s being done is

  1. The existing railings will be scrapped entirely
  2. New railing is being assembled out of gas pipe and the top rail will be somewhat higher than the original
  3. Steel cable will be used in-between the gas pipe to reduce the spacing to meet standards. Steel cable is allowed for railings as long as it it not the topmost rail (on the Holmes Street bridge photo you can see a single cable was added to allow it to meet specs.

Even the nuts and bolts are thought of. The original bridge used rivets exclusively. Nowadays riveting is becoming a lost art, and is prohibited for certain structural parts. The plan is to use rivets on visible pieces where it’s allowed and on pieces fabricated in the shop. Button-Head bolts, which resemble a rivet from one side at least, will be used in other visible areas, and the contractor will be allowed to use standard hex-head bolts underneath the bridge where no one but the frogs will see it. Generally, the bolts will be mounted button head inward, due to both practical concerns with getting a wrench in tight places, and aesthetic as the inside side of the bolts will be viewed up close. This unavoidably alters the aesthetic slightly from the outside. Consideration was given to putting plastic caps on the outside, but they would still stick out more, and that would introduce an inappropriate material.


Button Head Bolt

The Project Begins

The project initially got off to a rocky start. To begin with, CenturyLink had move a fiber optic cable that was in the way. Their boring machine broke, and it broke directly underneath a significant oak tree, which they were not allowed to cut down to retrieve it, so they had to bring in a new machine and start boring again from the beginning. The second task was the building of a temporary bridge in order to provide access.

Next demolition of the old bridge deck was done with small excavators removing the wood, an then the rotten steel was removed.  Next massive cranes were brought in and shoring towers were built and an entire section of the bridge was lifted off the piers which is easier to do with no decking, only lightweight temporary bracing to keep it in shape. This is very impressive visually with the huge cranes dwarfing the bridge. While suspended the piers were being demolished and rebuilt and the gusset plates evaluated and replaced if needed. The bridge has now piers, and construction on the new deck is underway.


Old Cedar Bridge Shoring Towers


The northernmost span has been set back down and is ready for the deck to be built, April.

Trailhead Improvements

Going together with the long term plan to reopen the bridge and open the valley up to a wider demographic by filling in a gap in our paved trail network are plans to make the trial-head more functional and attractive, and even enable school groups to visit. Some invasive underbrush and non-significant trees are being cut down around the parking area. Significant canopy trees are being left. This will provide a more open, attractive, park-like atmosphere around the immediate parking area, and increase the perception of safety. (“Perception” being the term from the study, not mine). A mowed, maintained area for picnicking will be located between the bridge and the parking lot. A modern restroom and shelter building is being built just out of the floodplain on the east side of the street. A new boardwalk with rails has replaced the a rotting structure.

Earlier plans were to add nothing but a striped biked lane going uphill (northbound Old Cedar) and sharrows going downhill. The revised plan includes a fully protected eight to ten foot off road trail. This will be a city-owned extension of the Nokomis-Minnesota River Regional trail that now runs between the Minneapolis network and 86th Street, and also connects to the Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail. This is a challenging engineering feat, with wetlands on the east side and a steep slope on the west. Since you open up all kinds of issues by cutting into a slope, the trail will cross to the east side near the curve. Originally they were looking at a boardwalk, but now it’s apparent something more like a bridge will be needed.

As a side note, I arrived an hour into the meeting about the new trail, and was only the second person to sign in. Does Bloomington not care about bicycling because the off-road infrastructure is so poor (the Nokomis trail is the first off-road paved trail anywhere in the eastern half of the city), or is it so poor because Bloomington doesn’t care? Or do people just figure it was going to be built anyway, and are not interested into finding out more in advance or providing input? I do know that public meetings aren’t the best gauge of public opinion, they tend to skew towards older people with more time on their hands, and people really involved in the community (the previous name I recognized as a regular contributor to the East Bloomington Residents Facebook Group). At least I got plenty of time chatting with the city engineer about this and other projects.

Finally, back to the bridge: the informal name is now official; the Long Meadow Bridge is now the Old Cedar Bridge.

Minnesota Statute 161.14 Subd 77: Minnesota state bridge number 3145, the Camelback bridge over the Minnesota River overflowage (referred to as Long Meadow Lake) constructed in 1920, is designated and named the “Old Cedar Avenue Bridge.” This designation and name also applies to any renovation or reconstruction of the bridge and must be used in any publicly financed signage that refers to the bridge.

Yes, it was expensive, but sometimes nice things cost money and this was money well spent.

Old Cedar Ave Bridge

The New Old Cedar Ave Bridge

Yes, We Can Build Our Way Out of Congestion!

September 12, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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“You can’t build your way out of congestion” is a longtime liberal dogma; repeated ad-naseum by those that hate cars and the American Dream. “Let’s not even try to fix congestion and spend money on transit instead”. Locally though, we seem to have built our way out of congestion on I-94 north of downtown Minneapolis, that was built with four to five lanes, and when traveling I’ve noticed cities with a lot of wide freeways tend to have better mobility. Recently I found a good source of data from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that seems to back me up.

There’s all kinds of data going back to 1982, so I had to select data to chart. Choosing freeway lane miles per capita was an obvious choice for how well built an area’s freeways are. For congestion, I chose annual hours of delay per auto commuter, because how long you’re stuck in traffic is the most noticeable and obnoxious thing for motorists, not the value of your time, the congestion index, or other more abstract metrics. Here’s the nationwide average data.

Annual Hours of Delay vs Lane Miles Over Time- US Average

Now here’s the data for the Twin Cities. Although the scale is exaggerated, the slight dip in freeway miles per capita in the early 1990s is still a deep chasm. Basically nothing substantial got built through the 1990s while population continued to grow. Finally a series of funding bumps leveled off the decline, and eventually we are back at the 1980s level.


In both cases the congestion curve actually bears more relation to VMT (Vehicle Miles Travelled) than lane miles per capita. Congestion delay was reduced because the Great Recession cut the size of the economy. The well-documented aversion of millenials to driving may also be a factor, since VMT have been slow to recover since the Recession, as shown in the next chart.

Regardless of recent VMT trends, traffic projections assume congestion will worsen. Even the St. Croix Crossing, which has been made out by the anti-car forces as a paragon of excess, is forecast to be congested in the next 50 years. (And it’s worth noting that with the signalized intersection that Oak Park Heights insisted on, the capacity of the Minnesota approach road is a lot less than the traffic apocalypse that was US 169 in Bloomington).


But let’s not abandon all hope of proving that freeway lane miles can make a difference in congestion. Everyone knows that Kansas City flows better than New York City, so another comparison would be how congested various cities are compared to how much they’ve built to date. Obviously there are cultural and geographic differences influencing annual hours of delay per auto commuter, but if there is a trend it could be revealing. Thus I’ve run the data through a data smoother to see if there’s a trend that’s getting masked by some of the choppiness.


A couple of things are apparent, at least with the raw data it looks like there is a noticeable decline in congestion as lane miles go up sharply . It also looks like there may be a noticeable increase at the end, once lane miles fall below a certain point. The smoothed data suggests that on average, building more lane miles really does make a difference in congestion.

As for the outliers in the middle of  lane miles, I’d suggest that Miami, Phoenix, and Tampa have a large number of retirees that don’t need to drive in rush hour. Washington DC has a large number of government office workers,  San Francisco has significant geographical barriers, LA, Houston, and Atlanta have significant car cultures. The Twin Cities is a low outlier, I’d suggest despite a lot of choke points at under-built river bridges, overall our unique “grid” system to freeways makes it easy to route around congestion.

I also looked at the effect when arterials are factored in (using a conversion factor) from a different source that did a . Rather than see the same pattern, to my surprise this is what I saw.


I see no obvious correlation. This data is from back in 1999, but if you take it at face value it seems contrary to conventional wisdom that a good arterial system can relieve freeways. I’d suggest that there’s a strong motorist bias towards freeways, and directing resources other directions can even be counterproductive if there is an opportunity cost of not improving the freeways directly. Wide suburban-style roads are nice to get quickly from your neighborhood to the freeway, but it seems the quantity of them has little effect on the overall congestion on the area. In real life, witness what a horrible disaster area I-494 in Bloomington is at rush hour, compared with how well American and 77th move, both wide suburban style roads designed specifically to attract traffic from I-494.

As a side note there was an article recently that suggested that transit, while obviously worthwhile, should not be promoted as reducing congestion. So what is the effect of transit on average hours of delay per auto commuter?


Looks like the most congested cities and the ones with the best rail networks are the one where transit makes the biggest difference to motorists. In other cities apparently most people that can drive already do so. Still, it may be worth promoting it as such as kind of a white lie. As part of society I agree that we should have transit, but there’s a lot of people around me that are either apathetic or against it so promoting it as something to get other people off the roads they drive on may be the only way to get broad support. Like this Onion article.

As a final side note, here’s freeway lanes miles over time for some of the cities. In addition to Kansas City, Minneapolis, and the national average, I chose Chicago because of its famous congestion, Phoenix because of its aggressive highway expansion due to a local sales tax, Houston because of its famous auto and suburban growth culture, Portland because it’s the anti-Houston,


Overall, my views remain unchanged. It’s always possible to build our way out of congestion in a theoretical sense. The street in front of my house has been “built out of congestion”; with only two lanes, it’s not filled with people induced to come down from Blaine and drive back and forth on it just because the capacity is there.  Maybe we could build I-35W out of congestion with 15 lanes in each direction. Of course we can’t as a practical matter, but it’s still worthwhile doing something; if we can’t fix I-35W we can make a difference elsewhere rather than just repeating the dogma and doing nothing.

And of course self-driving cars are on the way, which will be the ultimate solution to the problem. Even if there’s still a bit of congestion, taking a nap or working on your laptop will make it not wasted time.

Minnesota’s 10 Busiest Intersections

September 7, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment

Here’s the top 10 intersections for traffic volume in Minnesota. I decided to research this after a claim on Google seemed to not pass the smell test.


Wikipedia Claim

The source from Google comes from Wikipedia, which in turn comes from a book by Larry Millett, where he uses the phrase “This is believed to be the busiest intersection” with no indication of the ultimate source. Although it’s possible he’s trying to count pedestrians or light rail traffic in the totals, there’s no indication of such. Another writer emailed Mn/DOT asking if they knew, and the reply was they don’t officially know.There are other factors besides overall volume, both political and engineering related, driving the location of potential projects, so keeping such trivia apparently isn’t a priority. They explained that when they do, their methology is to add up all the legs of an approach and divide by two while cautioning that some data, especially for minor side streets, might be way off due to extrapolation from years ago rather than fresh actual data. But since it’s the best we have I thought I’d see what the busiest intersections are using it.

As it turns out, Snelling Ave and University Ave, at traffic volume 48,550, isn’t currently even in the top 25. Another writer suggested I could present it as a story, so here is the top 10. (This list specifically excludes any that might involve freeway ramps).

#1 is MN 252, at 66th Ave N, Brooklyn Center (Traffic Volume = 68,850). This is also in the top 10 most dangerous as far as crash statistics. Just down the road, #2 is MN 252 at 85th Ave N (66,950); #6 is MN 252 at Brookdale Dr.  (61,975); #9 is MN 252 at 73rd Ave N (61,515). Also of note, MN 252 at 70th is in the top 25. The original 1970s era plan was to build MN 252 as a freeway, but there was local opposition from the city, that wanted opportunity for economic development. So it was built as a wide suburban style road in the 1980s, and things have gone downhill rapidly from there. Studies have shown that with 2035 traffic a freeway facility is necessary, but unfortunately the corridor was removed from the long range freeway plans due to lack of funding. Brooklyn Center is pursuing a single interchange at 66th in the interim, while not letting go of the long term goal of a freeway facility. A pedestrian fatality prompted building a pedestrian overpass at 85th, but not much else has been done.


Minnesota’s busiest intersection- MN 252 at 66th Ave N


MN 252 at 85th Ave N.

#3 is MN 65 at 109th Ave NE, Blaine (64,650) and #4 is MN 65 at 92rd Lane NE(62,500). The intersection on MN 65 at County 14 (55,550), was replaced with an interchange, but momentum and funding has stalled after that. The long term goal is still a freeway northwards of US 10, but as of now unless the local agencies get some special funding nothing further seems likely.

#5 is US 10 at Fair Oak Ave, Anoka (62,325). Just down the road US 10 at Thurston is also in the top 25. US 10 was the subject of a very grandiose $300 million  plan to relocate the mainline next to the very heavily used railroad tracks, and bridge the cross streets over both. Significant right-of-way has been acquired, but like MN 252 this got yanked from the long term plans, but replaced by more modest spot improvements at the traffic signals, either with full interchanges or removing some movements. I don’t know if the relocation plan is officially dead, or in deep, deep ice. There’s an intersection being built and Armstrong, and Elk River wants one built at Twin Lakes Road, but afterwords focus may shift to more modest improvements at Fair Oak and/or Thurston. There is a jaywalking problem between Thurston and Fair Oak which included a pedestrian fatality, so discussions are underway about building a fence. Building a third lane while keeping the traffic signals for the time being has also been discussed.


US 10 at Fair Oak Ave

#7 is MN 15 at W Division St, St Cloud (61,750). MN 15 was planned, and ROW acquired for a freeway facility, but was built as a wide suburban style road instead. Exactly why is unclear, a Mn/DOT employee claimed that St Cloud fought them tooth and nail against a freeway so they could sell the excess land for commercial development; others have said that with the project languishing for decades because of funding the point was to sell the land to pay for building something as opposed to having nothing. At any rate, all parties now want a freeway, and it will be substantially more expensive due to extensive retaining walls now needed, but as usual there’s no money to pay for it. As a popup project one of the other intersections was replaced with Minnesota’s first diverging diamond, and the city avoided compounding the problem by building another interchange south of town, rather than adding yet another signal.

#8 is Cedar Ave S at 140th St W, Apple Valley (Traffic Volume = 61,700). Nearby, Cedar at County 42 is in the top 25.  There were various plans, including depressing the through lanes through Apple Valley (which the city took a dim view due to lack of access and how congested the frontage roads would be, essentially favoring the people bypassing Apple Valley), or just building interchanges at some of the higher volume intersections. One innovative proposal was to bridge the northbound and westbound lanes over the southbound and eastbound lanes, thus removing the left turn phases from the signals. Although a 2009 Dakota county study suggested an interchange at 42, unfortunately with the more modest improvements for the Red Line I doubt any further improvements will be done anytime soon.


Cedar Ave and 140th St, Apple Valley

Rounding out the list at #10 is County 42 and Nicollet Ave S, Burnsville (61,350). This one seems unlikely to ever be fixed. A plan to build a loop from southbound I-35E to northbound I-35W in order to eliminate the signal at the ramp to north I-35W was dropped when it was revealed it would make traffic worse due to more traffic being sent through the Nicollet intersection. Although I’ve seen the suggestion of a single point interchange at I-35E, studies seem to suggest giving up on moving traffic effectively through this stretch, instead compensating by moving traffic faster east and west of here. Ultimately I think the answer here is to build ramps of County 38 to provide an alternate route to get to I-35W.


Nicollet Ave and County 42, Burnsville

So if University Ave isn’t even close now, was it once? The book and Wikipedia state “around 64,000”. Going back 10 years I find 61200. But even using the more generous figure, even without looking much there were several high volume suburban intersections at the time, for example US 169 at County 81 = 79400, and US 169 and Anderson Lakes Parkway, 67550. Also interesting, is traffic volumes on the intersections that have been replaced by interchanges in recent years, some of these are local “popup” projects and some were driven by Mn/DOT.

US 10 / Armstrong Blvd = 39,680

MN 7 / Woodale Ave = 42,600

MN 7 / Louisiana Ave = 49,300

US 10 / County 96 = 59,100

MN 13 / County 5 = 66,000

MN 13 / County 101 = 60,100

County 42 / County 17 = 11,450

US 169 / County 69 = 36,430

MN 36 / English St = 76,400

MN 101 / 141st Ave = 53,700

MN 36 / Hilton Tr = 45,700


Sparkling new Diverging Diamond, MN 101 at 141st Ave, Rogers

So what factors do go into building interchanges? First is benefit/cost analysis. Basically you add up all the benefits and divide by costs. Not just physical construction costs, but future maintenance, drivers time ($16.00 per person-hour), costs of crashes (your life is worth $10,300,000, so you can see why only one of two fatalities can easily justify substantial improvements. This can throw things so out of whack the instructions are to make absolutely sure it’s correctable by proposed improvements, not say a random drunk driving into a tree), etc. And obviously the heaviest used intersections may not be the most congested, there’s other a lot of other factors.

Second, sometimes there’s a desire for continuity. We’ve decided we don’t want traffic signals on rural expressways, at least the more heavily traveled ones, so at only 21,850 for the higher one, the signals on US 52 at Cannon Falls are gone (although these are quite often also serious safety issues).

Third, sometimes local desires can short-circuit the overall planning process and get things bumped up, my own phrase is pop up projects because they sometimes pop up out of nowhere. Mn/DOT will usually humor these, provided someone else pays for a lot or most of them.

My own feeling is somewhat ambivalent. I never object to spending money expanding highways, and if Ramsey wants to play “Sim City” and get funding for an interchange at Armstrong ahead of the much busier ones on the corridor, so be it; a lot of times it’s this project or nothing. There’s no one championing and finding funding for a pop up project at Fair Oak at the moment, even if the Armstrong project didn’t happen. However this can sometimes lead to sub-par results, that we’re then stuck with for a long time. For example a single lane flyover was built from I-94 for northbound MN 101, rather than waiting for a much more comprehensive system interchange, and the new “interchange” at US 52 and Goodhue County 9 even had to have substandard ramps in order to qualify for funding!

Although I’m no longer really active on Wikipedia, I did go in to correct it.

The Case of the Disappearing Crosswalks

September 7, 2016 at 1:06 am | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment

Crosswalks have been disappearing in the suburbs.

As part of its ADA transition plan, MnDOT conducted an inventory of all 1171 signals with pedestrian push-buttons, with a plan to have all of the intersections in compliance with the ADA by 2030. Some high priority areas will be retrofitted as stand alone projects, but other intersections will be retrofitted when signals need replacing or other work in the area is being done. However, this is not cheap. A typical retrofit involves:

  1. Replacing all four curb ramps with ramps meeting slope and width requirements and a “detectable warning”- those steel bumps that always seem to collect snow. In many cases, the crosswalk will need to be relocated, which could affect buried traffic signal sensor loops.
  2. Installing countdown pedestrian indications if the intersection doesn’t have them. This could be as simple as swapping out a module, but could also involve replacing the entire housing if it’s a 9″ or 12″ instead of 16″ housing. (All the electronics to run a countdown are in the module itself, so at least no cabinet modifications are required).
  3. Relocating the push-buttons onto separate poles adjacent to the curb cut. The new accessible push-buttons run around $5700 an intersection, just for the buttons and associated controller themselves.

Besides the initial expense of a retrofit, the accessible pedestrian push-buttons also require ongoing maintenance. The new buttons tend to fail and need to be replaced and the button’s poles tend to get knocked over by drunk drivers. (Average cost to fix: $1000). Because of these costs, in some cases MnDOT is simply removing “redundant” non-compliant crosswalks rather than upgrading them.

An example in Eagan

Here’s an old Street View photo of Highway 13 and 55 in Eagan showing crosswalks in 2008:


Highway 13 and 55 in Eagan from 2008 with crosswalks

But the crosswalks have been removed by 2011:


Highway 13 and 55 in Eagan from 2011 without crosswalks

The south side of the intersection gets shiny new pedestrian signals and buttons. (Once they got away from lead based paint, you can see how poorly the newer formulations hold up on the 1990s era vehicle signals):


New black plastic pedestrian signal and old aluminum vehicle signals (and a new LED luminaire)


New LED countdown

New LED countdown


Shiny new audible-tactile push-button on top of the location of the old one.

However, the push-buttons and new signals are gone from north, west and east sides, replaced by shiny new “no pedestrian” signs. Whether or not to explicitly prohibit pedestrian movements where crosswalks, indications, and buttons were not provided was a subject of internal debate, as the signs were not being installed consistently. Eventually it was decided to always install them, as using engineering judgment, as opposed to following a policy, could expose the agency to liability.


New “No Pedestrian” signs. Note the pipe nipples below the vehicle signals that used to hold the pedestrian signals, the stickers that they didn’t bother to scrape off, and the rust where the old push-button used to be.


Close-up of the remaining stickers and rust where the old push-button was.

The problem with just putting up signs because the legal department requires it, is too many signs water down the message; too many stop signs muddies the water between “Danger- Stop!” and “We just want to punish you for having the nerve to drive through *our* neighborhood” while “Sl0w-Children at Play” signs communicate it’s OK to jaywalk and imply there aren’t children to watch out for in other areas. With all these no pedestrian signs, “We don’t feel it’s worth it to install accommodations” gets mixed up with the very few locations where it really is too dangerous or inappropriate for pedestrians.

History and debate

The first “accessible pedestrian signals” date from the 1920s; these were a bell or buzzer attached at the request of a nearby person with a visual impairment. The “cuckoo and chirps” date from the 1970s based on a Japanese system. These were mounted on the opposite side of the intersection to serve as a “homing beacon”, but unfortunately tended to drown out traffic noise. The modern integrated push-buttons date from the 1990s.

Accessible pedestrian signals are not without controversy. Having push-buttons where there is always a “Walk” given may increase the already prevalent confusion about whether those buttons actually “do anything”. Even among disability-rights advocates, opinion is mixed. The American Council of the Blind wants APS signals at all intersections, but the National Federation of the Blind has been skeptical. Although they admit selective installation may be desirable, their position is that overall, persons with visual impairments usually don’t have difficulty navigating intersections so it’s trying to solve a nonexistent problem, and that the cost may provoke a backlash. On the surface, I’m sure I’m not the first person to raise eyebrows at nice new upgraded crosswalks leading to ditches along 55 mph highways. While out taking pictures, I was there for a half hour on a nice day, and not surprisingly didn’t see another pedestrian.

It may also be worth a broader discussion about where, if anywhere, not to provide pedestrian accommodations. Take US 14 and US 71, an intersection with a signal in literally the middle of the country. Unless someone wants to walk from once gasoline station to another, I don’t see much reason for pedestrians to be there. No accommodations are provided and no signs prohibit pedestrians. At the relatively new signal at 83rd Ave N. and Bottineau Boulevard, no pedestrian movements are accommodated and signs prohibit pedestrians from all three legs of the T intersection to the east. Walking along the east side is probably grossly dangerous since there’s a high-speed ramp from Bottineau to US 169, probably the intent is anyone walking in the ditch along Bottineau should stick to the west side, where a crosswalk is provided at the next intersection north. Or else there is a frontage road to the east, where a sidewalk or a multi-use path isn’t provided either.

I definitely feel extant crosswalks should not be removed, and it seems the cost to provide them for new signals is small in the relative scheme of things, probably less than expensive lawyers trying to reach a new common sense based agreement with disability rights advocates.

Note: When this article was published on  2015 it caught the attention of a TV station, who did a news story on it. I helped them out but declined being on camera, but another writer was able to do so. The story caught the attention of Mn/DOT and was brought up in their signal commission meeting, and they were not amused.

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The Stillwater Bridge Story Part 2: Design Revisions and the Future of Downtown Stillwater

September 5, 2016 at 7:24 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment
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Now that the decision had been made to build the bridge, project development became more refined.

Aesthetic Treatments and Engineering Revisions

Bridge 12

Very early sketch from an internal Mn/DOT publication

Since the selection of an extradosed structure (is basically a hybrid of a girder bridge and a cable stayed bridge), the aesthetic design has also been refined since these alternate designs from 2005:


2005 Rendering, “Organic” Design


2005 Rendering “Hull” Design


2015 Rendering “Portal” Design

Although not present in the very earliest concepts, three supports were thought necessary and included in initial designs.

Bridge 16

Later rendering showing center piers.

Bridge 172007 rendering switching to the buff color but still with center piers

As engineering advanced, design reduced the number back down to a pair of columns for each pier location, then one set of piers entirely, which lightened both the aesthetics and the construction costs. (The widely thrown out figure of $700 million has always been derived by taking the high side of initial estimates and rounding up). Despite spending an extra $6 million for the Minnesota approach work because the lowest bid wasn’t politically correct enough, overall costs have been revised downward several times as engineering advanced and as construction has progressed without incident and contingency funds are released.

The piers are designed to resemble reeds (although my sister said they looked more like tuning forks). Some visualizations show it as a stark white (and which may have been an early proposed finish), while it will actually be a duller buff color. My own theory is that buff was chosen as a compromise between blending into the sky, like a bright color would, and blending into the ground, like a darker color.

Bridge 18

Design showing buff color and reduced number of piers

Lighting will be Mn/DOT standard davit (curved top) poles rather than WisDOT standard trusses as seen on the Hudson Bridge. In keeping with the theme of “understated elegance” as I like to put it, there will be cool white LED accent lights inside the piers. Some roadway lighting will spill onto the south set of cables; a technicolor light show like I-35W or Lowry isn’t planned, although blank conduits are going to be installed to leave the option open in the future.

My opinion on the aesthetics is that although I like the way the bridge looks from the roadway, in profile the overall height of the bridge looks a bit too high relative to the cables. Part of me really wants to see a true cable-stayed bridge closer than the Great River Bridge in Burlington, IA and I’m not sure it would have been entirely inappropriate here. An extradosed bridge is already quite modern looking and there are many other man-made structures outside of the Saint Croix Valley, so I’m not clear about the objections to seeing the cable. But at the same time, it’s exciting to see one of the first extra-dosed bridges in the US. Despite periodic rehabilitation work, Duluth’s Blatnik Bridge won’t last forever and a contract to study its eventual replacement was let last year, so perhaps that will be where Minnesota’s first cable-stayed bridge will be built.

Some Roadgeek Trivia

The new bridge poses some interesting questions. MnDOT is, at least in theory, supposed to maintain all and only the highways as specified in the Minnesota constitution as the Babcock Amendment, later copied into Minn. Statutes §116.114, and those highways specified in later statutes, Minn.Stat. §116.115, §116.117, and §161.12. The present MN Highway 36 leading to the lift bridge being replaced is known legally as Constitutional Route 45, with the following description:

Beginning at a point on the west bank of the St. Croix River at Stillwater and thence extending in a southwesterly direction to a point on the easterly limits of the city of St. Paul, affording Stillwater, Lake Elmo, St. Paul and intervening and adjacent communities a reasonable means of communication, each with the other and other places within the state.

Therefore MnDOT is in theory legally obligated to maintain a trunk highway to the “west bank of the Saint Croix at Stillwater.” However, there are two series of “secret” trunk highways, the 800A series of highways MnDOT intends to maintain but does not mark, and the 900A series they maintain and want to get rid of such as Robert Street/MN 952A as a notable example. So the lift bridge will likely be designated with a 800A series number, say MN 836A. But it’s doubtful that the two blocks of Chestnut Street will continue to be a trunk highway, and may not even continue to be open to cars, so MN 95 will have to be close enough to the “west bank of the St. Croix” to fall under the requirement. In 2013, Legislative Route 339 was created as the formal number for the highway between MN 95 and the state line on the bridge. Also of note, MnDOT has simply ignored legal requirements in the past, for example those “Mr. Locally Important Person Memorial Highway” signs now need to be paid for by someone else, but in practice MnDOT would remove them if there was no outside funding sources even when they were theoretically obligated to maintain them.

What the Loop Trail Could have Been

Although the saving the lift bridge and the conception of the Loop Trail were two of the better results the project delays, the Loop Trail itself has a couple of major issues. First, there will be a gap in the trail in Houlton, Wisconsin, “filled” by shoulders on the old WI 35, and “Share the Road” signs on the old County E. As one of those people who won’t ride a bicycle on a road for any reason, I don’t care what the sign says or what the paint says, this is major problem for me.

Second, the west side along the river will be pleasant and the river bridges will be spectacular.  However, a large portion will be right next to the freeway with a 70 mph design speed in an area destined to become housing developments.  But in an alternate reality, it could have been built it along property lines on new alignment to the old County E. Beyond that point, the state of Wisconsin owns the property (shown in green) that could pull the trail away from freeway up to the bridge itself (this property was bought for the 1995 alignment).

Also of note, the properties in purple are publicly owned. The history of the land next to the DOT property along the river is unknown, but the ones on either side of the lift bridge are a former Stillwater city park that’s been closed for years. I sketched an idea for a pedestrian trail shortcut in brown, although I don’t know whether this is feasible or desirable. Another option to consider would be inquiring if the landowners might be interested in conservation easements as a buffer for the trail.

Bridge 19

Loop Trail in red, a better loop trail in yellow, possible pedestrian trail in brown

Some closing questions

Why the interchange at County E?

Although it seems odd to put the Wisconsin interchange at County E rather than the existing WI 35, there were really two reasons for that. The first is that it better serves the area east of Houlton and south of Somerset along County E, that’s already started to develop. The second reason is they wanted to discourage “inappropriate” development at the top of the bluff.

What about closing the bridge?

It was never studied, but the idea of just simply closing the bridge and not building a replacement has been brought up; in fact, in 2011 the city of Stillwater demanded that the bridge be closed. My opinion is that any dollars spent on highway projects are good, even if it might not have the highest benefit to cost of all the possibilities. But assuming all the dollars would transfer to other projects, it’s fair to ask what else we could do with $330 million. For example $237 million would rebuild the I-35W/I-494 interchange (Presumably Wisconsin would use its share to build a new north-south freeway east of Hudson to connect the WI 64 freeway to I-94). Perhaps the residents on the Wisconsin side, which is now mainly planned for residential, would want a Walmart and Applebee’s built near Houlton to replace the ones they can no longer easily access, so such a plan might backfire if the goal is to reduce the impact of development. Closing the bridge would cost $34 million a year in lost time.

Similarly, options to reduce traffic were studied and found to be ineffective. An origin-destination study indicates most weekday traffic is heading from Wisconsin to Stillwater or the northern suburbs with very little to downtown St. Paul and points convenient to I-94. And drivers are already avoiding the bridge at peak times to the extent practical so further attempts at reduction would be ineffective.

Bridge 20

Interesting graphic of where weekday bridge traffic comes from and goes from the 1995 Final EIS

Will history repeat?

It will be interesting to see what happens a generation from now. On the public bridge viewing cruise I went on, the DOT representatives were peppered with questions like “Why are you only building it four lanes wide?” and “Can it be expanded to more lanes in the future?” Official traffic projections are in the 40,000 range, which can still comfortably be handled by a four lane freeway, but 30 years later it’s obvious the New Cedar Bridge is inadequate, as is the Bloomington Ferry Bridge after 20 years. More likely in this case, I think the stoplights remaining on MN 36 will become a traffic apocalypse. Just like on sections of US 169 and MN 252, it was in large part the cities’ actions which caused interchanges not to be built initially. In both these cases, the cities changed their minds when they saw what a disaster traffic had become, so we’ll see what happens in Oak Park Heights.

There was already a 2013 request for the “Corridors of Commerce” grant funding that would have built an interchange at Osgood Avenue in Oak Park Heights, as well as at the four remaining signals west of Stillwater Blvd.  At least the Oak Park Heights intersections are being built with multiple turn lanes and flashing yellow arrows so capacity will be better than what it was.

The Downtown: Grow, Stagnate, or Die

The most obvious question with the future of downtown is what’s going to happen when 17,600 cars each day suddenly disappear. There’s plenty of examples of old traditional downtown that have been bypassed. Hopkins, Shakopee, Hastings, and Anoka come to mind, although US 169 still goes through Anoka despite years of efforts of local agencies north of the river to get a new bridge built there. None of these seem to be doing quite as well as downtown Stillwater, and downtown Shakopee is downright sleepy. The downtown buildings are certainly much more impressive than Hopkins, there are more of the types of stores to draw tourists, and there is the river. Shakopee has the river too, but it’s separated from downtown by the kind of wide suburban style roads that were once proposed to separate Stillwater, and frankly the Minnesota River isn’t as attractive.

There are some interesting statistics from the 1990s origin-destination studies. First of all, only 8% of the shoppers in downtown Stillwater are from Wisconsin. Of these, a large percentage are probably people that would continue to shop there anyway- the new bridge is only a couple of miles out of the way- and not impulse stops from through traffic. Second, of the cars that do not have a destination in the Stillwater area, only about 8%  stop (total 579 on weekdays and 464 on Sundays), and that includes anywhere in Stillwater, not just downtown.  That fits with my personal experience, when I’m stuck in traffic I’m not in the mood to make an impulse stop for an ice cream cone or an antique glass bottle and if I’m going to stop it will be at the McDonald’s.

Clearly the cars stopping in downtown that will now bypass it are small, relative to both the number already going through without stopping, and the overall shoppers already downtown. Periodically the bridge closes to be patched up or when it’s flooded out, and some of the businesses actually reported an increase in sales as residents weary of the incessant traffic started venturing out. Stillwater has already been Wal-Marted, so most of the “go pick up light bulbs” traffic has already left for the commercial strip.

Bridge 21

Typical Backup

Bridge 22

Imagine how much nicer downtown will be without these cars

I’d also throw out my opinion that the new bridge is probably the best option for downtown. A new bridge adjacent to the existing location would still bypass the core downtown, preclude the loop trail and severely impact or preclude the new parks south of downtown, and be a major new structure near the historic buildings blocking the view of the river (for navigation it would need to be 60 feet high). Closing the bridge would completely eliminate the possibility of through traffic stopping (even if not a lot of it does). Maintaining the existing bridge would result in it simply wearing out sooner rather than later and pedestrians still being restricted to the narrow sidewalk.

Downtown is being pro-active at preparing for change. Specific suggestions have been to highlight the old buildings with illumination, better signage illustrating local history, being aggressive in promoting new business opportunities, and filling empty holes in the streetscape.

The New Parks

Adjacent to downtown, an obvious improvement that will draw people will be new parks extending along the river both north and south. As mentioned before the 17 acre Bridgeview Park extends south from downtown almost to the new bridge. Now that the Terra-Terminal building has been demolished (as mandated by the Memorandum of Understanding mitigation), developing it into a visitors center and picnic shelter are no longer options. Instead focus is on building a municipal boat dock, additional parking and access, and a boat launch, as well as what to do with the Shoddy Mill buildings. They are a subject of a separate study. A restaurant would require too much parking even with the additional parking being built, so suggestions have been a coffee shop, bicycle shop, and a possible operations and maintenance facility for the boat dock. Development costs are estimated at $10.7 million over five phases. MnDOT is paying for about a third (paving the trails and constructing some accesses), the boat launch and dock are about half.

Future bicycle trail in Bridgview Park

Future bicycle trail in Bridgview Park

Shoddy Mill Buildings in their new home

Shoddy Mill Buildings in their new home

To the north, in 2014 the 15-acre Aiple property with a half mile of shoreline was purchased for $4.3 million. Planning is still in the preliminary stages, but I’d expect it to be left in a more natural state. Apart from the homestead itself, it’s a lot more natural than Lowell or Bridgeview Parks, where the more intensive uses will be accommodated and are more disturbed from past industrial use.

The Browns Creek and Gateway Trail Connections.

The 5.9 mile Browns Creek Trail has opened on the former Northern Pacific Railroad right of way that formerly went to White Bear Lake. For the first time it will offer bikers a gentle grade (2 percent) out of the valley. Linking up with the Gateway Trail and thus to downtown St. Paul, it is one of the most exciting additions, with an estimate of 75,000 users a year. Downtown Stillwater will have gone from “zero” to “a lot” of real bicycle trails (as defined as something more interesting than a multi-use path next to a wide suburban-style road) in a few short years.

Bridge 25

The Brown’s Creek Trail through the Aiple Property. In the hour I was there I saw dozens of users. This was the first really nice day it was officially open.

Bridge 26

New Stillwater parks (in green), the Browns Creek and Loop Trails (red) and the multi-use path along MN 36 (white).

Theoretically it would almost be possible to ride around the edge of Stillwater using portions of the Browns Creek, Loop Trails, and the unnamed new trails along the MN 36 frontage roads and along Manning Ave, but realistically it’s not a type of place one thinks of as a recreational bicycle trip, featuring some of the spectacular scenery shown below.

Bridge 27

Frontage Road trail

Restoring the Bridge

The current plan for the existing bridge is to have the bicycle trail down the center, with pedestrian paths on either side. The long-removed acorn lights will be replaced, supplemented with overhead lighting. The bridge will be returned to its original green color (it was repainted grey in WWII).


Surface Parking

One thing is evident: There’s a sea of lot of surface parking and a gasoline station between the historic buildings and the riverfront parks.

Bridge 28

A Sea of Parking

Bridge 29

Downtown Stillwater: Existing Surface Parking = Yellow; Existing and proposed bicycle trails = Red. Before I found the actual plan, I highlighted existing and my idea of potential structured parking in purple, which lined up closely with actual proposals.

There’s appropriate places for a sea of surface parking lots, but between a historic downtown and the riverfront parks is not the Shakopee Walmart. (Parking is such an issue that the city even has a specific parking committee.) The city is at least being realistic in that people are not going to park in some remote lot in Oak Park Heights and ride a slow bus downtown, so the plan is to replace it with structured parking that has street level retail along the 2nd Street north corridor that’s an easy walk from Main and the river.

In this map from the comprehensive plan, existing and proposed garages are outlined in blue. Having the city subsidize the garages to encourage people to travel downtown may preclude setting parking rates at what it actually costs, although developing some of the surface lots could help offset it. The uncertainty about where and if a new bridge would be built might be another reason the lots are still there. Recently the city has proposed charging fees for the remaining free lots, which has not gone over well with local businesses.

As for what will replace the surface lots, it’s unclear. North of the bridge, the plan for the surface parking east of the bicycle trail seems to be to add it to Lowell Park, but west of the trail I’ve seen various proposals to build structured parking on some of all or it, or else allow commercial development. (The 2004 North Main Street/Lowell Park Plan had the entire thing as a parking deck), a later parking study had a much smaller portion as a parking ramp, and the above graphic doesn’t mention any. From south of the bridge to Nelson Street the lots are mainly private, and don’t seem to be the subject of any plans. The southernmost lot will remain for parking for the new park, and as mentioned above, more paved parking for the park will be added.

Lane Removal

With the oncoming reduction in traffic, there is also opportunity for pedestrians to reclaim some of Main Street. There’s a current proposal that would convert Chestnut Street leading up to the bridge to a pedestrian mall, which means that the massive left and right turn lanes leading up to it would be completely unnecessary. It’s been confirmed that on the north side, at least, this space will go towards wider sidewalks, and I’d expect this to be discussed for the south side also.

Bridge 30

Uneeded Stilllwater Lanes

The Area Highway System

Thinking more broadly, it might also be time to start having conversations about the future of the highway system in the area, not just what gets built, but who owns it. Like is it still even appropriate for Main  Street to be a trunk highway? The long term goal is to have state ownership coincide with principal arterial status. Right now only MN 36 and I-94 are principal arterials, but 5, 95, and 96 are still trunk highways. At least in the short term transferring them all isn’t reasonable, considering there’s so many other dubious highways around. But I’d consider moving MN 95 onto Manning (which would require legislative approval since right now MN 95 must go through Bayport), and turning back existing MN 95 and MN 5. Manning is rapidly becoming the preferred major north-south route in the area, and there’s plans to rebuild the junction with MN 5 to favor north-south traffic, as well as expand Manning to four lanes in order to handle the anticipated 25,000 daily traffic volume. As Part One notes, this was actually proposed decades ago (although I certainly don’t think at this time the shortcut on new alignment north of MN 96 is needed.)

Bridge 31

Functional Classification Map

Time of course will be the ultimate judge, but personally think downtown has a very bright future.

The Stillwater Bridge Story Part 1: The Backstory Behind the Bridge

September 3, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment

1931 Stillwater Bridge

Part I: The Backstory Behind the Bridge

Undoubtedly the highest profile road project in Minnesota is the new bridge at Stillwater, the St. Croix Crossing. (The project was originally known officially as the Stillwater-Houlton Bridge, or colloquially just the Stillwater Bridge, before the present name). Although there is a lot of current information available, the concept for a new bridge goes back three generations, with information getting hard to find the farther back you go, so this is Part I of a planned series of four posts to provide this history. At this point arguing about the merits or lack of merits is “water under the bridge” so rather than be an opinion piece this is intended to be more of a factual overview. There are some rather hyperbolic opinions that officials have stated that I repeat as part of the the history of the project, and I have tried to restrain my own enthusiasm for the project.

The 1931 Bridge

To begin, it’s interesting to take a step back and back and see that history repeats itself. The current structure built in 1931 was viewed as the ultimate solution to an ongoing problem. It was the result of decades of lobbying by the city to replace an inadequate, deteriorating structure and controversy over cost and location. Also interesting is the 1918 Stillwater City Plan which envisioned a grand rounds parkways system, a state park from downtown to Taylor’s Falls, and a majestic town square style municipal campus on the hill in line with the 1931 bridge.

Bridge 01

Stillwater “Municipal Campus” proposal with the city hall, armory, courthouse, and community hall.

1950s Plans

Only a generation later, with exploding post-war vehicle traffic, it was obvious the 1931 bridge was going to be inadequate for vehicle traffic in the future, and planning started for a replacement. I have no documentation, but at a public meeting for the new bridge, some old-timers were mentioning about how MnDOT was finally “keeping their promise to the town” and that the original “High Bridge” proposal was north of town. Around 1950 MN Highway 96, which formerly went through the center of town, was bypassed to the north. Directly across from the new ending was a curve in WI Highway 64, so although I have no documentation it’s not much of a stretch to think that a new bridge was intended to go here.

Bridge 02

MN 96 rerouting, old route in gray and new route in red. Was MN 96 to extend across the river?

1960s and 1970s Plans

By the time the 1961 Stillwater Comprehensive Plan came out, the new bridge was proposed in more or less the original location. The four lane MN Highway 212 (As the MN Highway 36 east of Stillwater Boulevard was then numbered) had recently been bypassed around Lookout Trail, and would have been extended to the new bridge. Since the railroad was still in use, likely this would have required substantial cuts and retaining walls into the bluff. There also would have been a “ring road” system around downtown Stillwater, presumably wide, suburban-style roads, and also discussion of extending Manning Avenue and relocating MN Highway 95 onto it as a north-south bypass. Also interesting was this comment: “Originally the new bridge was seen to be constructed after 1980. It now appears it may possibly become a reality by 1970”.

Bridge 03

1961 proposal for the Stillwater area showing a westerly bypass of MN 95.

Bridge 04

1961 proposal for the downtown area and the connection to the MN 36 freeway.

Bridge 05

What might have been. The new “ring road” system is in red and the footprint for the new freeway interchange and the bridge is in yellow


With a a wide, suburban-style road between the city and the river, the result would have been something like downtown Shakopee is now. And the interchange would have precluded any parkland south of downtown–although at the time the area was still in use by heavy industry. A 1966 suggestion of a double left turn lane coming off the bridge combined with removing parking on Main Street wasn’t implemented either.

A 1969 article in the internal Department of Highways magazine “Minnesota Highways” notes that a new bridge would “undoubtedly be built at a different location” because of flooding (although that may mean just the few blocks difference). The replacement cost estimate was $5,154,000 and the daily traffic total was 7,000, with replacement proposed 1975-1980. And there’s the suggestion the old bridge was already becoming a maintenance headache.

The 1972 Stillwater Comprehensive Plan dropped the ring roads in favor of a one way pair with Main and Water Streets, and is mum on the location of a new bridge. But the plan notes that most of the traffic problems in downtown are caused by the current location of the bridge, with the comment that on weekends Stillwater, “can be engulfed in traffic snarls typical of New York or Los Angeles.”

The 1979 plan notes the long term goal is to build interchanges along MN Highway 36, along with noting the “much discussed bridge hasn’t had a location selected, nor funding before 1990 at the earliest”, and notes drivers are cutting through residential areas to avoid “severe congestion” on the arterial streets. It wasn’t until the 1980s that talk and vague plans lurched forward into potential reality.

The 1985 Draft Study, 1990 DEIS, and 1995 Final EIS

Things got moving for real in in 1985 with the St. Croix River Crossing Draft Study Outline and Scoping Document. Originally there were seven options: A north bridge or tunnel, a new bridge at the current location, a new bridge just south of the current location, a new bridge or tunnel south of town, or building a drawbridge instead of a high bridge at any of the above bridge locations. Building a new drawbridge was dropped immediately due to traffic issues, and building a high bridge at the existing location was dropped due to the extreme disruption of the freeway approach being routed along Stillwater Boulevard, and Olive Street. Carried forward to the 1990 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) were the remaining three bridge and two tunnel alternatives.

Bridge 06

1985 Study Proposals, with the potential freeway approach roads in gray. I’m assuming only freeway approaches were considered due to traffic projections were such that there would be operational problems even with wide suburban-style roads.

The two tunnel alternatives were rejected due to environmental damage, restrictions on trucks, steep grades (5%), and costs. The North Alignment was rejected due to the excessive new construction required south and west of Stillwater, that north of town is when the river actually becomes more wild and scenic, and impacts to environmental and historic resources. I’ll also throw out the observations that it would have shifted the costs even more disproportionately to Minnesota (each state is responsible for 50% of the bridge structure, but 100% of the cost of their approach roads), and it would be a roundabout way for the “Walmart and Applebee’s” crowd from Wisconsin to get to the existing suburban strip south of town. It might have even resulted in a new round of suburban-style development along the new freeway, and/or such traffic cutting through the downtown area.

The Central Alignment (either a new four-lane bridge or a new two lane eastbound only) was rejected due to the damage to the bluffs and existing and proposed parkland a new freeway would cause between downtown Stillwater and the existing highway south of town. The aesthetic concerns of bridge high enough to allow river traffic near the old bridge and the downtown area was another reason the central alignment was discarded. As a side note, there was an option of a short tunnel to lessen the impact to the bluffs on either the central or south alignments.

Thus the 1995 Final EIS was when the choice was locked in the choice of a bluff-spanning bridge on the South Alignment. The estimated cost was $88 million dollars in 1990, rising to $120 million dollars in 1995; this was before years of construction inflation and included none of the expensive mitigation items as what’s being built. The goal was to be as unobtrusive as possible to the natural surroundings, and specifically to avoid any structures that could be seen outside of the valley, so a low-key girder design was chosen. The haunched girders (with small curves to them) gave it at least a tiny bit of flair. As a side note, I recently asked an engineer how much it would have cost to build a generic girder bridge instead of the current design. He refused to speculate, but noted that although choosing an extradosed span was entirely aesthetic, there was at least some engineering justification, that being the difficulty of building piers on the St. Croix River. 

Bridge 07

Rendering of the 1995 design from the scenic overlook.

But of course this never got built, as the gears were turning to get it built, gears were also turning to stop it, and as they collided they meshed into a jam, with the project neither proceeding nor permanently dropped for the next 15 years. Although final design work (costing $1 Million) and all the right-of-way was acquired, in June 1996 environmental groups sued the federal government to stop the bridge, and after an unfavorable ruling was finalized in April, 1998, bridge supporters worked to find an alternate that would still handle the expected traffic while satisfying more (if not all) of the bridge opponents. Thus entered retired Mn/DOT commissioner Richard Braun (the person the MN 610 Braun Bridge is named after) as a facilitator.

The Braun Process

The Braun process looked at several locations and types, and proposed a steel deck-arch bridge halfway between the old bridge and the 1995 EIS preferred site.  Putting the bridge here would have required a substantially shorter bridge, and less disruption to the bluffs on the Wisconsin side due to an existing ravine, and allowed Oak Park Heights to reclaim the “ghost neighborhood” that had been cleared for the 1995 FEIS proposal. The disadvantage would be it required an “S”-curve on the Minnesota side and a complicated interchange with MN 95 and created more impacts to the parks and bluffs south of downtown. Despite these drawbacks, myself, the city of Stillwater, and most bridge supporters would have accepted a “2nd Braun Bridge” if it had come down to building it vs building nothing or building at the existing location.

Bridge 08

The three locations studied by Braun compared to the 1995 FEIS preferred alternative

Braun Alternative “C” became known formally if inappropriately known  as the “Consensus Proposal”, and moved forward with a February 1999 amendment to the original scoping document, a March 2000 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and a December 2000 “Section 7(a)” approval by the National Park Service. A 2001 Supplemental Draft EIS was prepared by never released due to the suspension of the project in Jan 2001. Meanwhile the original 1996 lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice on the grounds that it referred to an alternative that was no longer being considered. Whatever the merits of the Braun proposal, ultimately it was doomed because satisfying “more” people was not satisfying “enough”.


The Smith Ave High Bridge, the most notable steel deck truss bridge and one possibility what the Braun proposal could have looked like.

Bridge 10

Braun Proposal Rendering

The only rendering of the Braun proposal I could find is really terrible, but I include it to give a sense of scale relative to the location. For a better idea of what it might look like there is the Sellwood bridge, currently under construction in Oregon, and the Smith Ave High Bridge;  two weathered steel deck-arch bridges. The height of the Stillwater Bridge would have been between the two, and wider than both.

Due to lack of unanimous support, and ongoing issues about what to do about the old bridge and how to pay for it, the process ground to a halt even before an official lawsuit was even filed, and work was officially suspended on Jan 12, 2001. However in 2001 and then again in 2002 the Minnesota legislature mandated Mn/DOT not remove it from the state transportation improvement program. Then in 2002 the process was restarted with putting all parties together and hoping they could agree, the Stakeholder’s Process.

The “3-Architects” Plan

Meanwhile, in 2000 three architects in  Stillwater, under the name “Friends of the St. Croix”, proposed an alternate to the Braun plan, where a new two lane, 40 mph eastbound bridge would be built, and the existing lift bridge converted to westbound traffic. They called it the “Citizens Common Sense Plan”, but I refer to it as the 3-Architects Plan as that is how official documents refer to it as. It was similar to an earlier option, and Mn/DOT rejected it for the same reasons: the impact of a 60 foot high bridge near the downtown, that even with removing parking from Main Street there were questions about the capacity of downtown streets, and the required four-lane divided approach road and ramp to the bridge was contrary to the city goal of new parkland extending south from downtown. In one of the goofiest proposals I’ve ever heard, at one of the public meetings I attended one of the environmentalist group representatives suggested both bridges could be reversible so the peak traffic would use the new bridge in both the AM and PM.

Stakeholder Group and the Final Location

The Stakeholders met from 2003 to 2006, culminating in the 2006 Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement. Since the Braun alignment didn’t appease opponents, the location reverted to the more logical extension of MN 36 directly across the river. In the intervening years a new bridge type had been developed, the extradosed bridge. It seemed like a natural fit for this situation, since the desire since the beginning of the process and still was to minimize the number of river piers while avoiding any overhead structure that could be seen out of the valley (although there was a minority voice that felt that a dramatic signature bridge would not inappropriate and the opportunity to build such was being wasted). Derived from the French word extradossé, (exterior curve of an arch), an extradosed bridge is basically a hybrid of a girder bridge and a cable stayed bridge. They require fewer bridge piers for a given span due to the cables providing supplemental compression of the bridge segments. Enough compression can overcome the force of gravity, similar to holding a big stack of books against a wall.

Finally, with the stakeholders proposal came dropping the idea of a freeway east of Stillwater Blvd. The primary reason was the city of Oak Park Heights, which (not without justification) had been concerned and  even stubborn throughout the whole project,  didn’t want to lose the tax base of the highway oriented businesses. But a secondary reason was that even to supporters it was obvious costs were getting out of control due to years of construction inflation, increasingly elaborate structure designs, and more and more mitigation.

The Memorandum of Understanding

Along with the Stakeholders group, the Memorandum of Understanding formalized the mitigation due to the inpacts on environmental and historic resources. The actual document is 41 pages and includes such minute details as requiring highway exit signs say “Downtown Stillwater”, so to summarize the key points:

1) The old bridge would be saved with an $3 million endowment for maintenance, and become part of what’s now known as the “Loop Trail”, for $7 million. Preservationists insisted it stay, environmentalists insisted on no net increase in transportation corridors across the river. (Why they couldn’t just close a minor two lane township bridge someplace in northern Wisconsin I don’t know). Eventually they decided that a bicycle bridge wasn’t a “transportation corridor” and relented on the old bridge staying.

2) Several man-made structures would be removed; the Terra Terminal building (which Stillwater had previously planned to renovate a a picnic shelter or visitors center), the “Buckhorn” sign on the Wisconsin side, and the Xcel Energy barge terminal, which whether or not you like concrete bridges has to be far uglier.

3) The Shoddy Mill buildings, a pair of old industrial buildings in the path of the new highway in Oak Park Heights, would be moved. This wound up costing over $1 million and questions were raised even by preservationists about whether it was worth it, but it was part of the deal so it happened. They wound up at the site of the Terra Terminal building, to be used somehow as part of the new park.

4) $2.5 Million to buy fee title, development rights, or conservation easements on blufflands.

5) Restoration of the scenic overlook along Lookout trail, built before the highway was relocated, but still maintained by Mn/DOT.

Bridge 11

The Xcel Barge unloading terminal, probably one of the ugliest things mankind has built.

The “Sensible Bridge”

As a counter-proposal, the Sensible Bridge surfaced. The major difference between this and previous “low and slow” designs was a three lane bridge with the center lane reversible, rather than a two lane bridge with the old bridge kept for westbound traffic   Originally the new freeway would have ended at a roundabout leading to the bridge and downtown, however later the group acknowledged that an interchange would be necessary in order to handle traffic. The suggestion was made that the bridge be tolled to repress demand.

Mn/DOTs response was similar to their reaction to the first such proposal. In addition to expressing doubts that it would be any cheaper due to having to restart the design and environmental process and resultant years of construction inflation, they note that the single lane in the “reverse” direction would be inadequate for traffic near the end of the planning horizon. Finally, there was insufficient space for storm-water ponds and a protected mussel habitat on the Wisconsin side. Stillwater’s mayor, Ken Harycki, was another blistering critic, stating the bridge would be “functionally obsolete upon opening”, and “would obliterate Stillwater’s views from downtown”. My own thoughts add that a three lane undivided road connecting two freeways seems like an enormous safety issue.

The group’s web page and Facebook site are now defunct, but quite a few resources show Stakeholders Option E3, which while not the actual proposal have been similar other than and interchange on the Minnesota site and three lanes.

Ongoing Litigation and the “Final Answer”

Ultimately though the Stakeholder group did nothing to solve the underlying issue: any bridge that would be adequate for projected future traffic would not be acceptable to environmentalists, and in turn any bridge that would be acceptable to environmentalists would not handle projected traffic. So the pushing and shoving continued.  As Rep. Ron Kind, (D-Wi) put it, “Let’s build one that’s worthy of the projected growth of the region so that we’re not revisiting this 10, or 15, or 20 years down the road and kicking ourselves that we did not make it as big as it should be.”

The National Park Service approved the design in 2005, but the environmentalists, having not gotten their way while they were part of the Stakeholder’s process, filed yet another lawsuit to stop the project, based on allegations that the NPS failed to follow it’s own guidelines in approving the design, and in Mar 2010 a federal judge agreed.  Since compromises that could still handle the projected traffic had failed, and litigation had gone against them, ultimately what should have been a local project rather than the national circus it turned out to be had to be taken to the highest level, with congressional bills to allow it passing both houses by huge majorities and President Obama signing it on Mar 14, 2012, finally ending 60 years of plans, speculation, and uncertainty.


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