Call it a soft launch. Starting in mid-May, the 3rd Avenue bridge connecting southeast Minneapolis and downtown will be reduced to one travel lane in each direction. Then, in January, the bridge spanning the Mississippi River will be closed to all traffic as the Minnesota Department of Transportation gives the historic structure its first major repair in more than 40 years.
When the top-to-bottom face-lift is complete in November 2022, the concrete arch bridge with its distinctive S-curve just north of St. Anthony Falls will look a lot like it did when it opened 102 years ago, with a few modern touches, said project manager Chris Hoberg.
“We want to put back what was there before,” he said. “We want to honor its history.”
The $120 million restoration includes installation of a new bridge deck with a sidewalk divided into lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Each of the five arches and piers that anchor the 2,200-foot-long bridge to the riverbed will be repaired. Concrete columns will be removed and replaced with a decorative design compatible with what was in place before the last restoration, in 1979. The Art Deco ornamental railing will be restored and lighting conforming with the bridge’s original design installed.
The bridge, built for about $650,000 according to a story that appeared in the June 18, 1915, Minneapolis Tribune, was considered a significant engineering feat at the time. Its curved alignment was necessary to avoid setting piers on limestone breaks in the river, according to a MnDOT publication, “Historic Features Report for Bridge 2440.” Just before its June 1918 opening, the Tribune wrote that the reinforced concrete bridge would be “practically everlasting,”
“Steel and concrete does not last forever,” Hoberg said.
The first major overhaul was part of a Works Progress Administration project in 1939. A second in 1979 nearly didn’t happen. MnDOT had considered razing the deteriorating structure and building a new one. Instead, the agency spent $9 million to raise the roadway 5 feet in the middle and repair both approaches. The work was finished in 1980.
The 3rd Avenue bridge was the last major reinforced concrete Melan arch bridge built in the Twin Cities. It’s one of 24 historic bridges across the state that MnDOT has designated for “long-term preservation,” Hoberg said.
Hoberg said the “robust rehabilitation” will extend the life of the bridge by 50 years.
A MnDOT study in 1946 found the 3rd Avenue bridge carried “more traffic to and from the loop than any other artery.” The most recent count shows that 18,000 vehicles and 1,800 bicycles and pedestrians use the bridge each day. The nearby Hennepin Avenue bridge carries 26,500 vehicles, according to MnDOT counts conducted in 2018.
When the 3rd Avenue bridge is closed, the official detour will send vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians to Hennepin and 1st Avenue. But just like after the I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007, area residents are concerned about extra traffic that may come if drivers cut through the neighborhoods, said Chris Lautenschlager, executive director of the Marcy-Holmes and Nicollet Island-East Bank neighborhood associations.
“It will make it less bike- and pedestrian-friendly,” he said. “Nobody has a complaint on restoring the bridge and restoring grandeur to the neighborhood. There is concern about access to areas under the bridge, like Main Street. Closing any roads below the bridge would cause severe disruptions in the neighborhood.”
During construction, MnDOT will add a dynamic transit lane providing a dedicated lane for buses into downtown in the mornings and outbound in the afternoons.
Minneapolis city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said a team composed of representatives from the city, Hennepin County, MnDOT and Metro Transit are crafting a plan using signing, signal timing, transit advantages and traffic control agents to keep traffic moving in and out of the neighborhoods.
“The plan will be dynamic to assure that it fits the traffic patterns that develop as part of the bridge closure,” she said.