The debate over what to do with the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge continues, with Bloomington officials unmoved by a $2 million federal grant.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

The Old Cedar Avenue Bridge, built in 1920, is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

$2 million grant might not save old Bloomington bridge

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • February 26, 2012 - 9:11 PM

Bikers and birders who want the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge reopened are hopeful that a $2 million grant from the federal government will spur the city of Bloomington to renovate the historic structure.

But the city is not budging from its position that unless someone takes the rusting bridge off the city's hands, it will continue to sit and rot.

"Everybody wants something done," City Manager Mark Bernhardson said on Wednesday. "If people feel that way, they should take ownership.

"We never wanted this bridge in the first place. The state handed it to us, and we had no choice."

The bridge, a critical trail and bike commuting link between Hennepin and Dakota counties, closed to vehicles in 1993 and to pedestrians and bikers in 2002. Although it spans Long Meadow Lake in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, it belongs to the city, which received it from the state in 1981.

The award of $2 million in federal money through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is just the latest twist in the bridge saga. For a while, the project seemed on the fast track, with legislative appropriations and talk from Bloomington about demolishing and replacing the bridge. But momentum ebbed when it became clear that the bridge's historic status meant that renovation of the existing structure was the only option that would be accepted by state and federal agencies.

The 1920 steel bridge is one of the few surviving Minnesota examples of a "camelback-through-truss" bridge and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

With the new grant, Bloomington had collected $8.8 million for the bridge project. However, $1.1 million in federal money awarded several years ago through the Metropolitan Council will dry up in March because nothing has happened with the bridge.

Although experts have estimated that a low-end rehabilitation of the bridge would cost less than $6 million, city officials are concerned that a partially restored bridge will need continuing maintenance and that the city will bear the cost. Though the most recent grant proposal said a joint powers agreement between cities and state and federal agencies would be set up after the bridge was renovated to share maintenance costs, Bernhardson said that issue as well as ownership has to be settled before any work occurs.

"That's the real issue for the city," he said. "All the money that has been put together has been for rehabilitation of the bridge, but that's only part of the equation. ... There are unknowns as far as the costs go."

Overtures to other agencies about possibly taking over the bridge have gone nowhere, he said.

When U.S. Fish and Wildlife applied for the $2 million federal grant last year, the city wrote a supportive letter for "this much needed connection," along with Burnsville, Dakota County, Friends of the Minnesota Valley and the Minnesota Valley State Trail Advocacy Group. Now the city has to decide whether to accept the money and what kind of strings are attached to it.

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge manager Charlie Blair said his agency's interpretation is that the money is to renovate the bridge. Bernhardson said he wants to see whether the money could be used for "a project that would garner much more usage" -- a more fully developed trail system on the river's north side.

"If we accept the grant in order to keep it for a potential project, that is one thing," he said. "If accepting it is a way of saying we're moving ahead [on the bridge] that's another thing."

According to the grant application, each year 300,000 people visit the refuge, which is one of the few federal wildlife refuges in an urban area. During peak season, the refuge has more than 800 visitors per day, with 350 people on local trails. An estimated 30,000 people per year visit the trailhead at the old bridge, which until it closed was a site for birders to watch migrating waterfowl and other birds that come through the refuge in spring and fall.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380. Twitter: @smetan

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