There's little doubt the new County Road 70 bridge over Interstate 35 in Lakeville has been well received.

"It makes the flow in and out there so much better," said Mike Mueller, owner of the nearby movie theater.

Its price tag, however, is a bit tougher to swallow.

The bridge, which opened this fall after two years of construction, is nearly $6 million over budget. Most of the extra cost stems from higher-than-expected prices Dakota County and Lakeville had to pay nearby property owners for land.

Lakeville City Administrator Steve Mielke said the city is "disappointed but not surprised" that the cost of purchasing the land came in higher than anticipated. He said negotiations began three years ago when land values were at their peak.

"This project is going to serve the community for years to come," Mielke said. "The fact that the cost came in higher than expected doesn't change the fact it was a worthwhile project."

Dakota County Transportation Director Mark Krebsbach said the County Road 70 bridge is one of the largest projects the county has undertaken. The bridge, with two lanes and turn lanes in both directions, replaces an old bridge that had just one lane each way.

Krebsbach said negotiating with property owners for the needed right of way was challenging because the county had to consider the landowners' claims of the properties' "highest and best use." Since the area comprises mostly undeveloped commercial properties near a major intersection, there was wide interpretation of what those best uses could be. The project budget included $10 million to buy the properties, but the actual price was more than $15.2 million.

In one case, property the county initially valued at $1.3 million was purchased for $4 million. And many lesser-valued properties also sold for more than expected. One parcel initially valued at $67,533 sold for $135,630.

"Any time you're spending taxpayer dollars you don't want to spend any more than you have to," Krebsbach said. "At the same time, you want to compensate the taxpayers fairly."

But property values weren't the only thing that pushed the project over budget.

About $700,000 came from construction costs that exceeded the original $19.6 million contract.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation may chip in to cover some of those costs because it helped with the project design work. Sheila Kauppi, a MnDOT engineer, said the state agency is waiting for more information from Dakota County about the reasons for the cost increases before deciding what to contribute.

So far, she said, MnDOT has agreed to improve one of the entrance ramps, installing a guardrail and additional road signs. "That was something that probably was overlooked during the design phase," Kauppi said.

But Dakota County and Lakeville are on their own to cover the cost of land acquisition for the project.

Lakeville factored its share into the 2010 tax levy.

Dakota County opted to shift money from other transportation projects that got boosts from state and federal funding, including $1.5 million originally destined for the Rock Island Swing Bridge and $2.1 million previously earmarked for improvements to County Road 96. Money will also come from the county's fund for right of way management.

Jamie Dahlen, owner of the Holiday Inn and Suites just north of the bridge, said cost overruns are to be expected. She ran into some while building the hotel three years ago.

"There's always unforeseen things. That's the cost of construction," Dahlen said. "I'll take the new bridge."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056 Dean Spiros • 612-673-1743