Oak Park Heights will see some big changes now that the city has granted approval to the Minnesota Department of Transportation to move forward with its St. Croix River bridge plan.
Most of the city's Hwy. 36 business corridor will undergo a significant makeover beginning May 1 that's intended to eliminate traffic bottlenecks and safety hazards in a 2-mile approach to a new bridge.
The plan generally calls for new pavement, a flatter road, new walking trails and storm water ponds, and improved turn lanes. The first work will involve rebuilding frontage roads along Hwy. 36 intersections, where cars now converge at all angles.
The overall bridge project, which Minnesota and Wisconsin said could cost as much as $676 million, includes a new highway on the Wisconsin side of the river, environmental and historical protections, and a 4.7-mile loop trail that will cross the Stillwater Lift Bridge once it's closed to vehicle traffic.
That will happen in late 2016 or early 2017, when the new four-lane St. Croix River Crossing opens.
Oak Park Heights, a city of about 4,300 residents, has businesses and residences on both sides of Hwy. 36, and underground service utilities through the corridor where the work will occur. Reducing -- or avoiding -- costs to residents for moving and improving utilities preoccupied the City Council for much of the summer.
"There was real big concern," Council Member Mary McComber said, on assuring "there would be no tax increase to anyone or any utility increase relative to this project."
By a 4-1 vote, the council granted municipal consent on Aug. 23 to MnDOT to proceed with the project. Solving the Oak Park Heights predicament was the final major hurdle for a new bridge.
"This is a result of hard work by a lot of people," said Jon Chiglo, the MnDOT division manager overseeing the project. The agency will invest about $74 million on the work in Oak Park Heights, which includes rebuilding the Oakgreen-Greeley intersection with Hwy. 36.
The agreement will unleash a flurry of developments as the project gathers steam. This fall, the historic Shoddy Mill will be moved from the path of the bridge to the riverfront south of Stillwater. In the spring, some work will begin on a new interchange where the bridge will touch land at Hwy. 95. Removal of a long-vacated neighborhood in Oak Park Heights could begin next spring as well.
Major work on the stretch of Hwy. 36 through the city will begin in 2014, , Chiglo said. Reconstruction of frontage roads will be accelerated to reduce inconveniences to business owners and their customers, he said.
The recent City Council vote ended months of negotiations between the city and MnDOT engineers over the cost of moving and improving city utilities. The city earlier this year estimated a potential cost to taxpayers of nearly $20 million, but that now has been reduced to $350,000. McComber proposed taking that money from city funds reserved for water and sewer work.
The difference for four City Council members -- McComber, Mike Runk, Mark Swenson and Les Abrahamson -- came hours before the vote, when Gov. Mark Dayton told the city he would seek $1.5 million for "utility betterments" from federal highway funds or a state appropriation.
"I wasn't ready for that decision until I heard that final number," said McComber, who is challenging Mayor David Beaudet for his job in the November general election.
Beaudet, who cast the dissenting vote, asked how the city could accept an agreement with MnDOT based on a promise for money. He named several reservations about granting unconditional municipal consent, which the city did in that vote.
"The City of Oak Park Heights has not reviewed and approved the visual quality plan, noise levels and sound walls, [the] scenic overlook plan, emergency service plan to the city, landscape plan, high guardrails to prevent vehicles from leaving the bridge. These are details that need to be reviewed and approved before we approve the project," he said.
Abrahamson and Swenson, who had met with the governor, said they were confident he would find the money.
"You have to take a leap of faith in your other elected officials," Swenson said last week. "I know they're not going to let us hang out to dry. It's quite a feat to have a project this big coming through. It's going to be a change for the community without a doubt."
Kevin Giles 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles