AUSTIN – The first part of Interstate 90 in Minnesota was built here in 1961.

Eight aging bridges on or along the highway are near the end of their lifespans, and after more than a decade of talks, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is gearing up to replace six of them along a 5-mile stretch.

"Progress doesn't come without some inconveniences," Austin City Administrator Craig Clark said. "This is definitely a case in point as far as that's concerned."

MnDOT officials say it's rare for a place like Austin, with 26,000 residents, to have so many bridges, let alone needing to replace them all at once. A corporate giant like Hormel Foods undoubtedly had a hand in getting those bridges built more than 60 years ago, some officials say. And Austin's lawmakers had outsized influence in the Minnesota Legislature at the time.

City officials began talks with MnDOT in 2014 to replace the aging infrastructure; by 2015 local officials were dreaming up ideas to beautify the new bridges. As the state secured funding and scheduled the estimated $50 million project, MnDOT replaced the bridge at 11th Drive NE. in 2017, followed by the bridge at 28th Street NE. in 2021.

Those were test cases, said MnDOT spokesperson Mike Dougherty.

"It was sort of a look at, this is the type of bridge you're going to see," he said. "The visual qualities, the bridge facade."

Minnesota recently secured a $25 million federal grant for the project, which Dougherty said frees up state money for road and bridge work elsewhere.

MnDOT officials have spent the better part of five years meeting with community members, drawing up plans and working with local businesses on how the project will impact traffic. That included reaching out to Austin's vibrant immigrant and refugee community.

Miguel Garate, a community booster and counselor at Riverland Community College, worked with consultants to meet with the Latino community over the past year and a half. Spanish language signs detailing the project hang at Riverland and popular spots around town, and Garate said most people were aware the project was coming, even if they didn't know how they could get around.

"They're ready for this," he said. "This project is going to help Austin so much."

The bridges will close one or two at a time over the next few years as MnDOT engineers stagger repairs to keep outlets open for residents. I-90 will close at times during construction, though MnDOT officials will keep on- and off-ramps open for travelers.

The 4th Street NW. bridge, one of two main thoroughfares to the business district where many buy groceries, will close some time in fall 2024 and reopen 12 months later. Its counterpart at 14th Street NW. will be replaced in 2026 and even feature a roundabout south of the bridge to mitigate traffic concerns.

Carolyn Molhusen, general manager at the popular Hardee's restaurant on 4th Street NW. just south of the interstate, worried at first the project would impact business over the next few years even if it would ultimately benefit the community.

Jai Kalsy, a project manager at MnDOT, told her at an open house meeting Tuesday that on-ramps will remain open most times, which means the Hardee's, a nearby Burger King, and even a recently opened Scooter's Coffee will continue getting traveler business.

"That won't be as hard as I envisioned," she said. "But it'll still be really nice once it's done."

Arlen Schamber, a retired Hormel engineer, said he was pleased with what he saw of MnDOT's plans to ease traffic problems on some parts of the highway, which includes a stoplight on the 4th Street bridge to help people navigate the cramped stretch of road near the off-ramps.

"It sounds like they have a pretty good idea of what they're doing," he said.

Clark said the city is still hearing from concerned residents who are just learning about the upcoming construction, which will start with some median crossover work this summer to prepare for the bridge replacements next year.

Even so, some people who weren't previously aware of the bridge work say they aren't too bothered.

"Austin can use the construction," Dayami Aguilar said. "It's a small town but it's definitely going to grow in the future."