When $2 million in state bonding money was dedicated last spring to replace the old Cedar Avenue bridge in Bloomington, it appeared to be curtains for the 1920 steel bridge that generations of Minnesotans remember as the way over the Minnesota River to "the Cities."

But the question of whether the bridge will be renovated or replaced isn't quite closed yet.

While the supplemental bonding bill says specifically that the funding is to replace the bridge, federal money that has been secured for the project requires it to be evaluated by a historian and an engineer to see if any of the bridge can be saved. The bridge is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bridge fans -- including the author of a new book on Minnesota bridges, one of the founding members of the Bloomington Historical Society and a state senator from Eagan -- want the bridge saved if possible.

"I've been studying bridges in Minnesota for a dozen years, and we don't have many of these old truss bridges left," said Denis Gardner, author of "Wood, Concrete, Stone and Steel: Minnesota's Historic Bridges."

"Bloomington doesn't have much of its old history left. I would think they'd want to save it."

Jim Gates, Bloomington's deputy director of public works, said he recognizes the bridge's historic and aesthetic worth. But previous evaluations showed big structural problems, he said, and it would be more expensive to repair the bridge than to replace it.

"We'd love to have the old bridge, but I think its time has come," he said.

A new bridge and boardwalk that could handle pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency vehicles would cost an estimated $3 million. In addition to the state bonding money, project funding includes about $1 million in federal money and $300,000 from the Metropolitan Council. Bloomington is expected to commit about $500,000, and city officials hope to get funding from Hennepin and Dakota Counties and Eagan and Burnsville, which would be linked to a new bridge by biking and walking trails. The total project cost jumps to $4.5 million when costs of improving roads that lead to the bridge are included.

No cost estimate to renovate the bridge has been given.

Rare in Minnesota

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) gave the bridge to Bloomington in 1981. The span closed to vehicle traffic in 1993 and to walkers and bicyclists in 2002.

The 865-foot bridge now reaches only over Long Meadow Lake in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, but it once had an extension that spanned the Minnesota River as well.

Larry Granger, one of the founders of the city's historical society, said the society has passed a resolution to save the bridge if economically feasible.

"To some folks it's just a rusty old bridge," he said. But he calls it a beautiful landmark that draws eyes as drivers pass over the new Hwy. 77 bridge.

Whether renovated or replaced, he said, it can be used as a vehicle to develop trails along the river and reconnect Bloomington residents to the river that spawned their city.

Author Gardner said Minnesota once had many similar bridges, but that most are gone now. The "camelback-through-truss" bridge is unusual for its length, he said.

"This is a fairly rare bridge in Minnesota," he said. "I understand where the city is coming from when they say it's deteriorating. The question is, do you do the hard thing or the easy thing? The more difficult thing is to preserve and rehabilitate the bridge."

Politicians weigh in

DFL state Sen. Jim Carlson of Eagan also wants to preserve the bridge. As an engineer, though not a bridge specialist, he isn't convinced that the bridge needs to be junked. While the decking, bearings that allow expansion and contraction, and bridge supports clearly need replacement, he said, he believes the steel from the roadbed up is sound.

"The part that holds the bridge up is in quite good condition," he said. "I just don't like to see things torn down that are still serviceable."

Evaluation of the historical worth and structural soundness of the bridge likely will start in August and probably will take about two months, said Kristen Zschomler, historian-archaeologist with MnDOT's cultural resources unit. Federal law requires experts to look at "feasible and prudent" alternatives for the bridge. Their report should clarify whether preservation is an option, she said.

Zschomler said the bridge is among 250 of 5,200 Minnesota bridges that have been identified as "truly important" because of history or engineering. "I don't think we have too many of these left," she said.

State Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington -- who fought for a decade to get funding for the bridge -- said she's all for saving part of the bridge if it is possible. But she believes financial and political realities make that difficult.

Though Carlson said he's willing to sponsor a bill to fund renovation of the bridge, Lenczewski said Gov. Tim Pawlenty's last-minute support of bonding for the bridge was the result of "stars lining up this year in a way no one could predict." It's two years until the next bonding cycle, she said.

The city of Bloomington also faces deadlines for use of the federal money, which means there is little time to dither. City officials have said work must be underway by 2009-10.

Granger said he hopes that the historical and structural analysis will answer the many questions people have about the bridge.

"What's so important ... is to have a more thorough study done so everyone is working with the same information," he said. "We need real figures of restoration versus replacement, and right now we don't have that information."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380