A Stillwater street punished over the years from heavy commuter traffic heading to the Lift Bridge will get an overhaul over the next two months.

Crews will begin work this week on a five-block stretch of 3rd Street South, also known as County Road 23. That segment is the first of four phases that Washington County plans along the route from downtown Stillwater to the vicinity of a new St. Croix River bridge.

The improved road will become an important piece of the bigger bridge project that will involve major highway reconstruction in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, but the timing is coincidental, said Wayne Sandberg, county engineer.

"We would be needing to do this either way because of the condition of the infrastructure," he said. "What the bridge offers is an opportunity to do some of the design features that make a more accessible, walkable, friendly project."

Work on 3rd Street South will transform the street, making it safer for pedestrians. A three-foot boulevard will be added to the east side of the street to make room for plowed snow. Corners of intersections will be expanded, reducing crossing distances and making room for small rain gardens to reduce storm runoff. The east sidewalk, often impassable in winter because of snow accumulation, will be widened to five feet.

The 3rd Street South neighborhood showcases some of Stillwater's grandest old homes, but the street has seen heavy traffic in recent decades because of interstate commuter traffic heading to the Lift Bridge. Pavement has deteriorated to the point where it's close to falling into the county's "red zone" of worst roads, Sandberg said.

The $715,230 project also includes replacing a broken storm sewer pipe, he said.

For years, commuters have cut through neighborhoods as they stream to the Lift Bridge. Doug Menikheim, a City Council member, said neighborhoods had become a "state highway" for bridge traffic.

When a new bridge opens at Oak Park Heights in late 2016 or early 2017, the Stillwater Lift Bridge will close to vehicle traffic. The old bridge, built in 1931, will become part of a loop trail on both sides of the river for pedestrians and cyclists.

Jon Chiglo, the project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said that because of maritime rules the lift will continue to operate after the new bridge opens.

Sandberg said decisions about whether some or all of 3rd Street South would close to traffic would be decided once the county meets with the contractor, Hardrives Inc., a St. Cloud company.

The county will pay for the work with funds that come from state gasoline tax revenue that is constitutionally dedicated to fund county highways. About $20,000 will come from the City of Stillwater.

The second phase of County Road 23 reconstruction, in 2013, will reconstruct Orleans Avenue from 3rd Street South to 4th Avenue. The third phase, in 2014, will improve the portion of 3rd Street South from Walnut Street East to Chestnut Street in downtown Stillwater. The fourth phase, in 2015, will run from Orleans Street to Pickett Avenue at Stillwater prison in Bayport.

The total cost for all phases will reach about $4 million.

Even when the new bridge opens, 3rd Street South will continue to be important, Sandberg said. "This will still be a main route in Stillwater."

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles