Supporters of the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge celebrate renovation vote

The renovated span, to be ready in 2015, will draw heavy use, supporters say.

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The Old Cedar Avenue bridge crosses the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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No one was popping Champagne corks on Tuesday, but there was quiet satisfaction and trading of some joyful e-mails after the Bloomington City Council agreed to renovate the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge.

For years, preservationists, bikers, walkers and nature lovers joined forces to lobby for a crossing over Long Meadow Lake, holding rallies, attending meetings and fuming at Bloomington’s inaction as the bridge in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge slowly rusted away.

On Monday night, the council voted 5-2 to fix the 1920 bridge, one of the few remaining remnants of old Bloomington. If all goes as planned, it will reopen in 2015 to foot and bike traffic, linking trails in Hennepin and Dakota counties.

Bloomington Historical Society stalwart Larry Granger, who sat through dozens of bridge meetings over the years, was in the front row at Bloomington Civic Plaza for the council vote.

“Here we go, finally,” he said Tuesday. “This is a very big deal ... so much more than a bike connection.

“The river valley is where Bloomington started, both with Native Americans and early farmers. What it is, is a turning back to the river.”

Bloomington state DFL Rep. Ann Lenczewski, who fashioned legislation this year that forced the Bloomington council to take action on the bridge before it could access $250 million for the expansion of the Mall of America, said she watched the pivotal council meeting on TV.

After the vote, she was deluged with e-mails.

“I’m just thrilled,” she said. “It is so important that they did this. … It is easy to be a leader on things that are black and white and simple. This doesn’t have that perfect set of variables, but they got it done.”

The bridge, which closed to vehicle traffic in 1993 and totally closed in 2002, was dumped on the reluctant city by the state in 1981. Even though bridge enthusiasts and historians see something rare and beautiful in the bridge’s five spidery black steel camelback spans, for Bloomington it has been an albatross.

Federal officials have long maintained that the bridge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, had to be rehabbed, not replaced. They reinforced that opinion in a letter last month. City officials were willing to build a new bridge, but they balked at spending millions more to renovate an antique that no one wants and that city officials believe will be costly to maintain even if it is rehabbed.

Lenczewski’s bill pushed the council to take action, with an added carrot of $9 million in new money for the bridge project. Bloomington now has $14.3 million available for the bridge rehab, with the job costing an estimated $12.7 million.

“The state stuck it to the city of Bloomington, and in the end the state is paying the tab,” said Lenczewski, who was once a Bloomington council member.

Bicyclists delighted

The bridge vote didn’t come soon enough for bike advocate David Gepner of Richfield. He pedals long distances in groups. By the time the bridge reopens, he said, he will have spent almost 14 years taking miles-long detours to cross the Minnesota River. When the Old Cedar Bridge is rehabbed, it will provide a link to a pedestrian-bike bridge that hangs from the Hwy. 77 bridge.

“Why did it have to take so long?” Gepner said. “This is a major route across the river between Bloomington and Eagan. One of my regrets is that we never counted the bikers that used the [Old Cedar] bridge. The numbers will be impressive.”

Joining those bikers on the rehabbed bridge will be hikers and birders, who before the bridge closed used it to observe migrating waterfowl and birds on Long Meadow Lake. Charlie Blair, who managed the Minnesota Valley Refuge until he became Midwest refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year, said it was great to “finally have a decision.”

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