Before the Mall of America gets one state dollar for a $1.5 billion expansion, Bloomington must agree to replace the historic Old Cedar Avenue Bridge either through restoration or a new structure.

In the final days of the legislative session, House Taxes Committee Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, oversaw the insertion into the tax bill of a $9 million provision for the bridge. The tax bill also directed $250 million to the Mall of America project. But the mall won't get the money until the Bloomington City Council agrees to go ahead with the bridge.

"I don't think there's any way it can't go forward now," Lenczewski said of the bridge.

She has tried for years to get funding for the old bridge and finally this year leveraged House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Gov. Mark Dayton's support for the mall into money for the bridge.

The 1920 black camelback steel-truss bridge spans Long Meadow Lake, which is just north of the Minnesota River. It once provided the critical link between east Bloomington and Burnsville, but it's been closed to vehicles since 1993. Bikers and pedestrians haven't been allowed to use it since 2002.

Wildlife and recreational enthusiasts who walk, bike and birdwatch in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge have missed the link between the growing networks of trails in the north and south metro, Hennepin and Dakota counties. But the Bloomington City Council had balked at an expensive restoration in favor of a less expensive new briddge. Even with $3 million in bonding from previous legislative sessions, the project had stalled.

Karl Keel, Bloomington's city public works director, expects the bridge project will win council approval now. Tying the bridge money to the mall money "very greatly increases the odds of it getting done," he said. "The Mall of America money is very important to the city," he said.

Bloomington Port Authority Administrator Schane Rudlang said, "We're OK with it. We're moving forward with it today."

A crucial crossing

The $9 million and the $250 million will come from the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area Fiscal Disparities Program, a regional pool of commercial-industrial tax revenue that gets redistributed to poorer communities. Lenczewski noted that Bloomington gives more than it gets from the fund.

The Mall of America doesn't yet pay property taxes because it's in a tax-increment district, and the state, not Bloomington, benefits from sales taxes from the stores, Lenczewski said.

Year after year, she said, her Bloomington constituents have seen state projects built elsewhere. "East Bloomington has nothing," she said.

Supporters say the bridge's benefits would extend beyond Bloomington because of trail connections to the south that connect to Minneapolis and St. Paul in the north. Determined bikers and hikers already climb over the fences, Lenczewski said.

"It is time that we restore our ability for walking and biking in this area," said Paul Stachour, a member of Volks­sports walking group and a Bloomington resident. "It is a critical connection for Minneapolis, Plymouth, Edina and anybody that wants to cross the river and carry on."

Doing nothing isn't an option, Stachour noted, because the bridge eventually would collapse, necessitating an even costlier cleanup.

A path to wild places

Part of the area is overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has a deep history of national significance. No less a nature aficionado than transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau waxed reverentially about the Minnesota River during his 1861 visit. "It is eminently the river of Minnesota ... and it is of incalculable value to her," he wrote.

A new bridge would open that area up, said Richfield resident and Thoreau Society board member Dale Schwie. "It's a real asset, both natural and recreational," Schwie said. "Bloomington has an opportunity to create, in a wild sense, with the river valley what Minneapolis has done with the parks system."

Keel said the first step is completing an environmental assessment that will detail potential effects on wildlife as well as cost for options from restoration to reconstruction. Once that's complete, the city will have a comment period, with numerous state and federal agencies weighing in on whether they support restoration or reconstruction. Ultimately, the Fish and Wildlife Service has the final word.

The process could take up to a year, but Keel said he expects the council to take the necessary vote of support by the end of the year.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747 @rochelleolson