When inspectors judged the Minnesota Veterans Home truss bridge in Minneapolis critically deficient and ordered it closed, it meant more than the loss of a spot to view fall colors or a route for visitors pedaling surreys around Minnehaha Falls.
The bridge, built in 1908, represents a major artery for paramedics, firefighters and other emergency workers to reach the elderly and infirm residents of the Veterans Home.
Now the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs is asking the Legislature for $7.8 million to redesign and renovate the bridge, restoring its vital access to the vets’ home.
The request comes as the state VA is planning significant construction at the vets’ home. With the bridge barricaded and unsafe, the only way in or out of the sprawling campus for the last two years has been on E. 46th Street at Minnehaha Parkway, a roadway often blocked for hours by events and races like the Twin Cities Marathon.
The state VA prefers better access for trucks and cranes than the narrow, winding and heavily trafficked road leading past the Wabun picnic area and the Frisbee golf course.
“That is our driving factor,” said Mike Jandro, facilities director for the Minnesota VA, which operates the home. “That road wasn’t meant for the type of traffic it’s seeing now. Only one entrance and exit is difficult, especially if we have an emergency.”
There have only been close calls so far. But city and state officials openly worry about the day an ambulance is delayed in reaching a stricken resident.
If bridge funding is approved, construction could begin in November 2017 and is expected to take nine months. The proposal, backed by Gov. Mark Dayton, has faced no opposition as it has made its way through the Legislature.
More accessible and safer
The 108-year-old bridge, officially called 5756, has outlasted its anticipated life span.
The bridge, 626 feet long and 20 feet wide, was first declared unsafe and closed to vehicles in 1987. It remained open as a pedestrian bridge for another decade.
It was rehabilitated in 1999 but then closed to both pedestrians and vehicles in 2014. An inspection that year found numerous problems that made it unsafe, including severe corrosion near the top of one critical arch where only 35 percent of the column remained.
The historic nature of the bridge adds to the complexity in restoring it. A rare example of steel-deck arch construction in the state, it is part of the Minnesota Soldiers’ Home Historic District and the Grand Rounds Historic District.
The state VA is going through a design review, which will be submitted for approval to the state historic preservation office once the documents are completed.
“We chose to pursue restoring it,” Jandro said. “We can still make it useful. To be honest, we didn’t want to take the time for the battle to decide if we could build new.”
Besides improving access to the vets’ home, city officials hope that opening the bridge will make future events safer along Minnehaha Parkway. The VA has a memorandum of understanding with the city of Minneapolis that allows residents to have access to the bridge, in exchange for spaces at several park board parking lots.
Allowing cross traffic now requires extra police staffing and is more dangerous to race participants than if the road were closed to vehicular traffic, said Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Steffanie Musich, who represents the area and supports restoring the bridge.
“We have been able to make it work, with only occasional complaints,” she said. “But certainly, it would be my preference to restore access to the home and Wabun picnic area via the bridge.”