The new Lafayette freeway bridge is finished, well almost.

Except for a few finishing touches to be applied over the next few weeks, work on the Hwy. 52 bridge over the Mississippi River connecting downtown St. Paul with the city’s West Side and southeastern suburbs is finally done

It took five construction seasons to replace the original Lafayette bridge that was opened to traffic in 1968. The aging structure had been identified as one of the state’s most deficient when bridge inspections ramped up in 2007 following the collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis. Work on the new Hwy. 52 bridge started in 2011.

“This took a long time and it was well worth the wait,” State Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said at a project completion celebration Tuesday at Metropolitan State University. “We see this as a larger vision of what transportation is for our state.”

The $130 million project consists of two bridges, with each of the 3,200-foot spans having two traffic lanes and auxiliary lanes to handle merging and exiting traffic. It also included a major redesign of on and off ramps at the I-94 and I-35E interchange on the north end and improved access to downtown streets.

Pedestrian access and bikeways allowing bicyclists to cross the Mississippi River from Plato Blvd. to E. 7th Street and access the Bruce Vento Trail, the Lowertown area and CHS Field were added in. Piers were carefully set to accommodate barge traffic and lights on the bridge were set lower than normal as to not interfere with aircraft approaching nearby St. Paul Downtown Airport.

“We made sure it is for all users of the system, not just cars,” Zelle said.

For motorists, Tuesday’s celebration officially brings to an end four years of navigating narrow lanes and through tight and twisting turns both on the bridge and as Hwy. 52 bridge decks over I-94, Plato Blvd., Eaton Street and Concord Blvd. also were replaced.

“Having dealt with construction and crossing that bridge on a fairly regular basis, I am so glad that obstacle course … at the beginning of the north end of the bridge is gone,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “It was quite an exciting challenge. We are happy that is over.”

In the coming weeks, crews will wrap up work on abutments and sidewalks and clear away the last of the old bridge over I-94. The ramp from southbound I-35E to southbound Hwy. 52 is expected to reopen by the end of the month, and landscaping will be completed next year. But motorists won’t see any more lane closures or detours, MnDOT said.

Going forward, Zelle said the Lafayette Bridge stands as an example of what MnDOT can do with appropriate levels of funding.

“We have more bridges and more needs throughout the state,” the commissioner said. “We know the need is still there.”

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