Fearing business disruptions, Anoka County leaders want to scrap a cheaper plan to fix a crumbling bridge in favor of a project 10 times as expensive to widen the bridge and keep it open during construction.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation had planned to spend $2.5 million to fix the narrow Hwy. 97 bridge, which links Columbus with Forest Lake in Washington County over Interstate Hwy. 35. The plan would add no traffic lanes and result in lengthy detours for up to four months.
Local leaders, however, are lobbying legislators for a $25 million project that would add lanes and improve access ramps while keeping the bridge open. One of Columbus’s largest employers, Running Aces Casino and Racetrack, is nearby.
“There is no good detour. It will kill our businesses in the area,” said Columbus Mayor Dave Povolny.
State senators toured the site last week and heard pleas from school officials, city leaders, police and firefighters. Anoka County leaders hope to get the project included in an upcoming state bonding bill.
“Let’s make sure we are utilizing taxpayer dollars in the most efficient way possible. It doesn’t make sense to drop the bridge and rebuild it the same as it is today, ”said Rhonda Sivarajah, who chairs the Anoka County Board.
According to MnDOT, about 77,000 vehicles daily travel the stretch of I-35 that goes under the bridge, just north of where the freeway splits to the east and west.
The traffic count on Hwy. 97, also known as Lake Drive, is 18,000 vehicles per day; that includes nearly 100 school buses, 650 Running Aces workers and scores of Metro Transit buses that pick up commuters at the nearby park-and-ride lot.
Sivarajah said the current bridge “is not only structurally deficient but capacity-deficient. It’s a two-lane bridge with no shoulders, built in the 1960s. It was constructed with rebar that is untreated. There are chunks of concrete swelling off it.”
MnDOT supports the county’s hopes for a more expansive rebuild if stakeholders can find the money, spokeswoman Denise Workcuff said in an e-mail message.
Local business owners say adding lanes to the bridge and keeping the interchange open during construction is critical.
“A closure during the summer would really hurt our business and our 650 employees,” said Aaron Bedessem, Running Aces’ marketing director. “A majority of our customers come from Minneapolis and St. Paul.”
Jason Houle, owner of the Straightline Performance dealership located at the intersection, said that increasing bridge capacity should be the highest priority. Long backups are common during commuting times.
“It needs to be four, five, six lanes. Two lanes will never suffice,” Houle said. “In the morning, it’s backed up half a mile to a mile each way. It’s gridlocked.”