Cities affected by nearly a decade of construction are eager to see if, in addition to better traffic flow, the bridge brings new development.
After one brief, final, fitting traffic delay Wednesday night, the completed Wakota Bridge opened with little fanfare in time for rush-hour traffic on Thursday morning, a moment eight years and $300 million in the making and with many well-documented bumps along the way.
"We're very excited about it, but it's obviously been long-awaited," said Brian Anderson, city administrator in Newport, where businesses took the brunt of construction delays and diverted traffic.
The sleek, low-slung concrete structure rises 60 feet above the Mississippi River between Newport in Washington County and South St. Paul in Dakota County -- from which its "Wakota" name is derived.
The new span now has three through-lanes each for Interstate 494's eastbound and westbound sides, with two more lanes for merging on and off. On the north side of the westbound span, there is a bicycle/pedestrian path, and there are shoulders in both directions.
The old bridge had only two lanes in each direction, no accommodations for bicyclists or pedestrians and no shoulders. It was never designed to handle the 90,000 vehicles that cross daily.
The new bridge will be able to carry commuter trains in the future. "That was visionary, I felt," said Mary McFarland Brooks, spokeswoman for Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). And it's an attractive structure, she added, gracefully arching over three massive concrete piers and designed to afford views of the river.
But there have been a few costly warts along the way.
Begun in 2002, the westbound portion of the bridge opened in September 2006, about a year after its planned opening. The eastbound portion needed to be redesigned, but negotiations between the contractor, Lunda Construction Co., and the state hit a stalemate over costs and how to proceed. The eastbound span was removed from the project, MnDOT canceled Lunda's contract and the project was put up for bids in 2008 -- with Lunda Construction getting the new contract. All told, the project was delayed by three years and ended up costing about double the original estimate. That hurt taxpayers and businesses.
Mary North and her husband own the Newport Center, a small shopping complex that includes their Newport Drug store and North Pole restaurant. At least one tenant, an antique store, went out of business and blamed the bridge work -- and left a sign on the door saying so, North said.
Along with the bridge, Newport got a double whammy when Hwy. 61 was reconfigured to be more like a freeway, with fewer access points to the city, North said.
The Norths' businesses have gradually revived. Now that the bridge is done, North said she and other business leaders are ready to turn the page. "We're hopeful that with the bridge, some new business will come to Newport," she said. "Newport does need a shot in the arm, as many cities do, because of the economy."
The city lost a drive-in restaurant, two gas stations and a drive-through coffee shop in recent years, she said.
"We were able to get Newport some extra LGA [local government aid] to help get it through some of these tough years, but it certainly doesn't make up for what the city has lost," said Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove. "The Wakota Bridge had a lot of tragic mistakes that caused years of delays and led to a lot of lost businesses in the area."
Two other projects being completed this summer -- on interstates 494 and 694 between the bridge and Hwy. 36, and on Hwy. 61 between St. Paul Park and Hastings -- will mark a major transportation upgrade in the east metro. The $40 million I-494/694 work will create three traffic lanes over that entire stretch.
Looking even further ahead, a transit station will open in Newport, likely in 2012, at the site of a former Knox Lumber Co. store near the junction of I-494 and Hwy. 61. It will initially serve as a park-and-ride lot for commuter buses, but is envisioned as a station for the Red Rock Corridor rail line that's in the early planning stages.
The combination of the bridge opening and the commuter station is stirring interest in economic development that had been put on hold in Newport for much of the past decade, Anderson said. With a new focus, the city plans to do a marketing analysis and other steps to attract businesses.
The $23 million Hwy. 61 project will segue into one more major project: replacing the Hastings bridge, the state's busiest two-lane span. Construction is set to begin in October.
Sieben, who sits on the state's Senate Transportation Committee, said she has confidence in the new leadership at MnDOT and believes the lessons of the Wakota Bridge construction will help as attention is turned to the Hastings Bridge and the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul, which are slated for replacement starting this winter.
One hopeful sign: Bids for the Hastings project came in far lower than expected -- $100 million under the project's price cap. Lunda Construction won the bid.
Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199