Bloomington explores giving bridge to the feds

The Old Cedar Avenue Bridge would go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under a deal that might also include about 1,000 acres of land.

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The signs on the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge leave no doubt that it’s closed.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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Bloomington's Old Cedar Avenue bridge, the rusting wreck beloved by birders and bikers, may have a future after all.

The city, which has been the reluctant owner of the bridge for more than 30 years, plans to talk with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about taking the bridge. In return, the city could give up about 1,000 acres of Minnesota River bottomland that would become part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

The 1920 steel bridge -- closed to bike and pedestrian traffic since 2002 -- spans Long Meadow Lake in the refuge. If it reopened, it would provide an important biking and walking link between trails that are being developed in Hennepin and Dakota counties.

Finding a new owner could break the political stalemate that has jeopardized the bridge's future. Officials at both the city and the refuge emphasize that no serious discussions have occurred. But the possibility of a deal is attractive enough that it was enthusiastically discussed at a recent Bloomington City Council meeting.

"We are excited about this," Mayor Gene Winstead said at the meeting. "We will pursue this at top speed."

In an interview, city Public Works Director Karl Keel said, "This is a new idea that has not been vetted on our side or on theirs. It sounds like a good idea ... but I couldn't say if it has a good chance or a bad chance."

Refuge manager Charlie Blair also measured his words. He said he had passed the concept along to higher-ups in Fish and Wildlife "in very broad terms" and is waiting for more information from the city.

"We really haven't had a chance to digest anything," he said. "We will consider any offer the city makes to us ... if it is in the best interest of the Fish and Wildlife Service."

Idea develops

The idea of the city land swap came up at one of the monthly meetings on trail development that are regularly held at the refuge. A resident who is bird-dogging the bridge issue pushed Blair on what it would take for the feds to take the bridge, and suggested the city land donation.

That's attractive to Fish and Wildlife, because one of its goals is permanent protection of refuge lands. While Bloomington has kept the land adjacent to the refuge mostly wild, Blair said that around the country there are examples where land use changed and conflicts between Fish and Wildlife and other owners developed.

"Our philosophy is that land is protected when we own it," he said.

Keel said the city has no intention of using the river bottomland for anything other than as an informal part of the refuge. But if an agreement were worked out, there would be details to address involving easements and utility lines as well as a small "port" on the river where the city allows barges to be tied up.

Rehab poses steep costs

A possible and significant barrier to any agreement is that Fish and Wildlife likely would want the bridge to be rehabbed before it took ownership. While the city prefers to tear down and replace it, the structure -- a camelback steel truss bridge that is now rare in Minnesota -- is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, state and federal agencies have been unwavering in their requirement that the bridge be rehabbed rather than replaced.

Estimates of rehab costs range from about $5.5 million to $10 million, depending on the extent of the work. The city already has banked about $5.3 million in funds from various sources for the job. But at the council meeting, City Manager Mark Bernhardson chafed against the rehab requirement, saying that renovating a structure as old as the bridge could lead to unforeseen costs that the city should not have to bear.

He prefers to build a new bridge for about $4 million to $4.5 million.

"This is clearly a regional entity," Bernhardson said. "The appropriate risk should be taken by someone else."

Bloomington resident Larry Granger, one of the founders of the city's historical society, urged the city to move on rehabbing the bridge.

Breaking the stalemate

Scott and Dakota counties are already building trails that could connect to the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge, he said, and to continue to fight state and federal governments that have made it clear they will not allow the bridge to be demolished is futile.

"The discussion with U.S. Fish and Wildlife just needs to happen and you need to sort that out," he said. "This is the strategic time to resolve this issue."

Winstead said "the entire council wants to get this taken care of." While city staff has been attending the trail meetings at the refuge, the council voted to also send council members Vern Wilcox or Karen Nordstrom to future meetings to keep up with any developments.

Said Keel, "We were at a stalemate, so any breath of fresh air is positive. Who knows if this will amount to anything? But we definitely want to take a look at it."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

Twitter: @smetan

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