During three hours of questioning, MnDOT officials said adding light rail to the new bridge poses an expensive and problematic twist.
Like the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge, the proposed replacement won't be a soaring span suspended from the sky nor will its piers be rooted in the water.
But the new bridge would nearly double the previous width from 100 feet across to 180 feet, sending 10 lanes of traffic -- one more in each direction -- across the Mississippi River, according to a draft drawing released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The bridge might be a concrete box or a steel structure, said Jon Chiglo, MnDOT's project manager.
Major details remain to be worked out and Minneapolis City Council members who got their first look at the bridge Tuesday morning showered the state officials with three hours of questions.
The topics ranged from traffic flow to design aesthetics, to transit options and the possibility of eliminating rail spurs near the University of Minnesota to lower the slope of the bridge approach.
In turn, Chiglo and other officials sought to assure the city that they are pushing a quality project with a current estimated cost of $250 million and an aggressive schedule for completion by the end of 2008.
"Quality will not be sacrificed on this job," Chiglo said. The bridge, he said, will be built to last 100 years.
What was presented Tuesday was a line drawing of the bridge's lanes and interchanges, with no indication of what it would actually look like. The five construction teams invited to bid on the project will each submit their own designs.
Federal money is conditional
Over and over, MnDOT officials pointed out that the Federal Highway Administration money is available contingent upon the bridge being built essentially as a replacement for the old one -- not a fancy enhanced version.
But that ran headlong into Minneapolis City Council members' expectations for a key connection to the heart of the city.
Council Member Don Samuels, who represents north Minneapolis, sat in on the session Tuesday and reminded the state officials that the bridge will not only carry thousands of people every day but will also be "a part of our cityscape viewed from other bridges."
Council Member Diane Hofstede, who represents northeast Minneapolis, wanted details about "aesthetic issues" and questioned whether the replacement would be "unique and beautiful."
In a response that drew laughs, Chiglo said, "Beauty's in the eye of the beholder. That's why typically engineers don't get involved in aesthetics."
After the session, Council Member Scott Benson said MnDOT should make a full examination of all options. "It appears that they're willing to do that, but I don't know if they have the time," Benson said.
The meeting with Minneapolis is more than just courtesy. MnDOT will need so-called municipal consent from the city for the project, which the state is pushing on aggressive schedule for completion by the end of 2008. At the council's Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting and later at a news conference, MnDOT officials struck a conciliatory tone, saying they want to reach "regional consensus" on the plans for the bridge.
The consensus comments were in part a reaction to a potential rift between transit-hungry Minneapolis officials eager for light-rail potential on the new span and more wary state leaders.
City and state leaders sought to clarify positions on Tuesday about light-rail transit. Mayor R.T. Rybak's chief of staff, Tina Smith, said the city is concerned about preserving LRT options for the span, but it is not tied to the idea that the Central Corridor line linking Minneapolis and St. Paul, which already is mapped out, go over the new bridge.
MnDOT's Bob McFarlin, assistant to the commissioner, said that was a new, but still problematic, twist. Preparing the bridge for LRT requires building a bridge that can handle heavier load specifications than a bridge designed for cars, trucks and buses. Such an enhanced bridge might jeopardize the $250 million in federal emergency money now available for rebuilding, he said. The agency has asked the federal government to formally respond to that point, he said.
McFarlin said LRT would also take up three of the 10 lanes.
Many of MnDOT's answers to the council members sought to tamp expectations.
But Council Transportation and Public Works Chairwoman Sandy Colvin Roy was intrigued by an aspect of the proposal that would eliminate rail spurs on the north end of the bridge. She said that option would allow the bridge to be level, so traffic merging from the north would have better sight lines than the previous uphill approach.
Plan includes closing streets
The plan also would permanently close SE. 2nd Street. Hofstede asked whether in-depth traffic studies had been conducted on such a closure. The answer was no. The plan also would close off a stretch of 14th Avenue S. that is adjacent to I-35W and would put cul-de-sacs at each end.
Council Member Elizabeth Glidden was concerned about how five lanes of northbound traffic on the bridge would flow into the three lanes currently on the interstate.
Tom O'Keefe, an area manager with MnDOT said there are no plans to add capacity from the south, but "we've got a high level of comfort this does not create a new bottleneck."
The idea is that the fifth lane would pick up merging traffic in each direction and then lead into an exit at the opposite end, O'Keefe said.
Colvin Roy asked what it would take to ensure the bridge is strong enough for LRT.
O'Keefe said the agency is looking at that. The cost, however, would likely have to be borne by the state, and officials were unable to say how much that would be.
Chiglo told the panel that MnDOT would like a resolution from the city endorsing the project.
Eventually, the city will be asked to do more than that, by providing a formal approval called municipal consent to MnDOT's final layout for the bridge. Municipal consent requires specific timelines, and coordination will be necessary to meet the goal of MnDOT to have a replacement bridge by the end of next year.
Colvin Roy said that once a plan is submitted, the city has 15 days to give 30 days' notice for a public hearing. After the hearing, the city has 90 days to submit a response to MnDOT. The city has several options for a response: approve, disapprove or disapprove with conditions.
MnDOT is not required to yield to the city's wishes, but McFarlin said proceeding without city approval would be difficult because it would lengthen the process and potentially push back the completion date.
"The commissioner of transportation can move forward despite municipal opposition for interstate projects. It takes a significant amount of time to get to that point," he said.
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