The Bloomington structure dating from 1920 will be restored, thanks to state funds.
New life is stirring in Bloomington's rusting Old Cedar Avenue bridge, popular with walkers, birders and bicyclists until it closed eight years ago.
A year after frustrated city officials said they were willing to let the 90-year-old structure rot rather than invest millions in a relic that no one wanted, along came a $2 million boost in state funds from the 2010 bonding bill.
The city now has almost $6 million to renovate the bridge. A clarification included in a jobs bill also gave the city a new way to raise funds toward bridge restoration without raising property taxes.
Key decisions lie ahead for the city.
In May the City Council is expected to begin discussing bridge alternatives. The city originally wanted to tear it down and replace it but can't do that because the bridge has historic status. Council members will have to choose between partially or fully restoring it, mindful of how that decision affects chances of finding a new owner for the bridge.
Mayor Gene Winstead says it's time to move forward. "I believe there's a great desire to get it done," he said.
Up to $9.9 million to fix it up
Bloomington reluctantly took ownership of the bridge from the state in 1981. The 1920 structure spans Long Meadow Lake in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and until 1993 was open to cars and trucks. It remained open to bike and pedestrian traffic for nine more years, connecting Bloomington to Eagan as a key route for bicycle commuters. It closed to all traffic in 2002.
The 865-foot steel bridge is one of the few camelback-through-truss bridges left in the state. Bloomington had raised about $4.5 million to replace the span. But with the bridge eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the only option is to renovate the bridge.
Estimates last year put the cost of full restoration at $9.9 million. Partially restoring it would cost $5.8 million. Recession might have pulled those numbers down, but it's still going to be more expensive than simply replacing the bridge.
State Rep. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington, who has been largely responsible for driving state money to the bridge, agreed with city officials that the big challenge is finding a new bridge owner. That could push the council toward fully restoring it. Annual maintenance on a partially restored bridge could reach $140,000.
"Nobody wants to buy an old beater car with an engine that doesn't run, and nobody wants a crappy bridge," Lenczewski said. "If anybody else is going to own this bridge, [Bloomington] is going to have to fix it first."
No move to raise taxes
Language in the state jobs bill allows Bloomington to use a liquor and lodging tax, which raises between $4 and $4.5 million a year, for the Old Cedar Avenue bridge. That tax was created to help with debt service on Mall of America parking ramps and is still partly used for that purpose. The money also has been used for improvements near the mall.
Using some of that money for the bridge would allow the city to fill the gap in funding for restoration without raising property taxes.
"We want to be very prudent because we know future phases of the mall will involve bonding," Winstead said. "The city has already committed to a million [dollars for the bridge]. There's still a gap there of a million, if not a couple of million dollars. Are we willing to fill the gap?"
He said the issue of future ownership is key. So far, talks with parties like the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not produced potential bridge takers.
"If we are going to contribute to further restoration, we want to have someone responsible for it," he said. "But there's no reason not to get going on it."
Council discussions could last for months, said City Manager Mark Bernhardson. The council also would have to change an old resolution that limits city funding to pay for only a replacement bridge.
If a decision is made to go ahead with renovation, he said, work probably wouldn't start until 2011.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380