As the new Lowry Avenue bridge has gone up, so have the costs and delays.

Planned in 2007 as a $36 million, 900-foot span to be completed in a couple of years, the project has ballooned to a $104 million, 1,600-foot landmark linking north and northeast Minneapolis that's now expected to be finished this fall.

Hennepin County has scrambled to pull together funding for the bridge ever since county officials decided to replace the original rusty, century-old, open-grate bridge over the Mississippi River.

Initially on the hook for $9.4 million, county taxpayers are shouldering $66.5 million of a price tag ratcheted up by the addition of a "signature" design and a second bridge built as an approach to the main bridge.

"I understand that desire to have things that stand out and are special, but it means that you spend a lot more of your constituents' money and I don't think we're there anymore," said Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who called the new bridge a vestige of another era when government could afford to dress up its infrastructure.

The approach bridge, a plain concrete box girder design that stretches 700 feet from the river bridge nearly all the way to N. 2nd Street, is closer to what Johnson believes would have worked just fine on the river.

Supporters say the cost to create a strikingly modern bridge is well worth it because of its value to the community and future development of that corridor. They say it also continues the evolution of the city's industrial riverfront to green space and parkways.

"It's going to be there for a long time and tie those two parts of the city together," said Mark Stenglein, the former county commissioner who spearheaded efforts to replace the former bridge and is now Minneapolis Downtown Council president and CEO.

A 'signature' bridge

One factor in the rising cost was the County Board's decision in 2008 to build a unique, tied-arch design that cost $18 million more than an alternative freeway-style bridge. The cost difference later was whittled to $12 million by slightly narrowing the lanes and shrinking the deck surface.

The new bridge will have some additional features: color LED lights in the arches and railings, costing $685,000; an anti-icing system, $1.58 million; and a sand filter to collect and clean runoff from the bridge deck before it enters the river, $565,000.

The county is financing nearly two-thirds of the project with bonding. The balance comes from $37.5 million in state bridge bonds, $2.7 million from Minneapolis, a $475,000 federal transportation grant and $190,000 from Xcel Energy for bridge conduit space.

It didn't start out that way. When county officials decided in 2007 that the old Lowry bridge needed to be replaced -- only weeks before the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed down river -- they estimated that a new 900-foot bridge, bank to bank, would cost $36 million and take two years.

Neighborhood pressure

But neighbors told leaders that they wanted something as memorable as the old bridge with the truss spans and the grates that made car tires hum. The city's riverfront master plan for the Lowry Avenue crossing envisioned a 2,000-foot span reaching all the way to Washington Av. N.

County officials decided on a 1,600-foot span with a "basket handle" arch that would cross the rail tracks and terminate near N. 2nd St. To fund the project, they sought $24 million in state bonding and $73 million in federal earmarks; the county's projected portion was $12 million.

When federal funds failed to materialize, county officials decided to divide the project in two, building the main bridge now and leaving the approach bridge for later.

Then some funding wiggle room opened up when Lunda Construction Co. offered to build the main bridge for $51.5 million, less than expected (Lunda later also won the contract to build the west approach for $18.6 million).

The project became something of a roller coaster as county officials beat the bushes for new funding sources to cover the fluctuating budget.

At one point last year, Commissioner Peter McLaughlin proposed the county impose a wheelage tax on vehicle owners to generate $4 million a year for the Lowry bridge. The board voted it down.

Double the cost

The turning point came at a meeting in April 2010, when County Administrator Richard Johnson proposed that the board increase county bonding for the bridge project by $30 million so the entire project could be finished at once.

Without comment, commissioners -- including Jeff Johnson -- voted to nearly double the amount the county would spend on the bridge project. The reasoning was that it would be cheaper to complete the project now than later.

"You [wouldn't] have to close that bridge down again. There's a point where you have to get it done," Stenglein said in an interview last week. "Somebody had to do it. The city wasn't going to put up any money for it, and the feds never did come through with anything."

In the meantime, the surrounding neighborhoods have been without a river crossing for more than four years, when the old bridge was closed. Three years ago that bridge was blasted into the Mississippi. Construction on the new bridge began in the winter of 2010.

"It's been down too long, but we didn't have the kind of money" to move as fast as the Interstate 35W bridge, which was finished the year after the old bridge collapsed in August 2007, Stenglein said.

Hennepin County Engineer Jim Grube said he expects the Lowry bridge will open in October. Save for a few details, most of the work has been finished on the river bridge. Last week, workers were preparing to pour concrete for the deck on the west approach.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455