The Bloomington City Council on Monday voted to fix the historic Old Cedar Avenue bridge, ending a 20-year debate about what to do with the key trail link between Hennepin and Dakota counties.

By a 5-2 vote, the council abandoned the city's longtime goal of replacing the 1920 bridge, choosing instead to rehabilitate it at an estimated cost of $12.7 million.

The vote followed reception of a letter from federal authorities that made it clear that the city would not be permitted to replace the bridge, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and in a federal wildlife refuge.

Mayor Gene Winstead acknowledged as much before the vote. "I think that letter from the Federal Highway [Administration] really set the direction," he said. "If we can't read the writing on the wall …"

The council vote was made easier by a bill engineered this year by Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, which required the city to move on fixing the bridge before it receives $250 million for the expansion of the Mall of America. That same provision gave the city $9 million for the bridge project. Combined with previously allocated state and federal funds, the city has $14.3 million for the bridge project — more than enough even for a rehab of the old structure.

Council Member Tim Busse said the council's longtime position that it intended to replace rather than fix the bridge was largely financial. With city taxpayers protected by the outside funding, he said he was pleased to help save a piece of old Bloomington.

"There's a lot to say about preserving our past and connecting to what this community used to be," he said. "We have the opportunity to preserve something here that is pushing its 100th anniversary, and it's worth saving."

City leaders had been reluctant to spend millions to fix a bridge that was given to them by the state in 1980 and that they never wanted.

The black camelback steel-truss structure crosses Long Meadow Lake in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. It was closed to vehicle traffic in 1993, but was used by bikers, walkers and birders until 2002, when the rusting span closed to all traffic.

Bloomington officials have been concerned about continuing maintenance costs for a rehabbed bridge, especially when no one else has been willing to take ownership of the structure.

Council Members Vern Wilcox and Tom Hulting voted against rehabbing the bridge, saying it was wrong to spend almost twice as much to rehab the structure as it would have cost to replace it.

Replacement would have cost an estimated $6.8 million.

"I just have a hard time … spending twice as much money," Hulting said.

The current bridge periodically floods and is sometimes inaccessible in the spring, he said.

"If it's not irresponsible, it's unwise," Hulting said. "We don't know how the 19th-century design will hold up."

Feds said no to replacement

Last month, the city received a letter from the state office of the Federal Highway Administration, saying that replacing the bridge would have an "adverse effect" and that rehabilitation of the old span was the way to go.

"Our office [has] concluded that the rehabilitation option was both feasible and prudent," the letter said. "It would not be in the best interest of the public to expend additional resources on further consideration of replacement alternatives."

A restored bridge would provide a link to the growing network of trails in Hennepin and Dakota counties via a biking and walking platform attached to the Hwy. 77 bridge over the Minnesota River.

The city now will forward its project memorandum to federal authorities and regulators.

If the plan is approved, the city probably would hold a public hearing on the bridge in November or December.

Design work would be done next summer, with bidding in fall 2014 and construction in the winter of 2014-15.

The bridge could be reopened by late summer 2015.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380