Safety concerns prompt traffic limits on U bridge

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • August 22, 2008 - 10:49 PM

Concerns about the strength of the pedestrian portion of the Washington Avenue bridge -- the distinctive double-decked span over the Mississippi River that connects the East and West Banks of the University of Minnesota campus -- have prompted Hennepin County to limit where bikes and pedestrians are allowed on the bridge's upper level.

The bridge, which was built in 1965, is just downstream from where the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River less than 13 months ago. Construction staging activity for the new bridge has been clearly visible from the Washington Avenue bridge.

On the upper deck of the bridge, pedestrian and bike traffic will be limited to only a 14-foot-wide section in the middle of the bridge. That area is inside the enclosed portion of the upper deck.

The lower bridge deck, which carries more than 28,000 vehicles daily, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, will continue to be open for auto traffic for loads up to 80,000 pounds.

Hennepin County, the bridge's owner, had previously earmarked $400,000 for repairs to the pedestrian level. In preparation for that work, engineers determined Thursday that the weight should be moved to the center of the bridge.

"There are columns in the middle," said Hennepin County Assistant Administrator for Public Works Marthand Nookala. "Once we put the braces on, we'll reopen the bridge."

Hennepin County commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the project is scheduled to be completed by late spring or early summer 2009. However, he hopes the project can be accelerated.

The decision to limit upper deck traffic to a small area concerns U officials as they prepare for the beginning of the school year. If construction lasts until spring, the university will have limited bridge access for pedestrians and bicyclists for most of an academic year.

"It's going to be a big challenge for us," university spokesman Daniel Wolter said. "There are some estimates that this bridge carries 5,000 people an hour during some of our peak times. That's not a small traffic flow at all, but we're very grateful to Hennepin County for responding to this so quickly and bringing it to our attention."

Structure sees a lot of traffic

The Washington Avenue bridge is the primary link between the campus' West and East Banks. While the school runs a bus service between the two parts of the Minneapolis campus, thousands of students walk across the roughly quarter-mile bridge daily.

It isn't uncommon for undergraduate students to have classes on both sides of the Mississippi, nor is it unusual for a student to live in one part of campus and have the majority of his or her classes on the other part of campus.

One of the bigger challenges for the university will be the mixing of bike and pedestrian traffic in a small area. Currently, there are painted bike lanes on the north side of the bridge and there are times when cyclists move at a pretty good pace.

"We're definitely going to have to appeal to bicyclists and pedestrians to get along through this time," Wolter said. "We're going to do everything to keep the bicycle lane aspect to this running, but it's very possible that there could be some limitations."

Shortage of buses right now

The university is examining the possibility of increasing the number of buses that run across the river. That, however, won't be possible immediately. The first day of classes at the U is Sept. 2. Because the Republican National Convention is in town at that time, additional buses are impossible to obtain.

"It's not the greatest," McLaughlin said of the limitations. "But we want to err on the side of caution."

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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