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The governors of Minnesota and Wisconsin have teamed to seek $889.5 million in federal infrastructure funds on a joint project to rebuild the John A. Blatnik Bridge in a key Twin Ports freight route to the East and vital throughway to the Port of Duluth.
“This is an important infrastructure project for northern Minnesota, our neighbors in Wisconsin and our interconnected economies,” Gov. Tim Walz said in an Aug. 11 announcement. “I’m proud to partner with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to ensure the Blatnik Bridge gets the funding it needs to be completed safely and efficiently.”
Jointly owned and managed by Minnesota Department of Transportation and Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Blatnik Bridge was built in 1961 and is 1.5 miles long. Its current aging condition is impacting freight movements.
“Apart from the thousands of folks who cross it by car, the Blatnik Bridge is also essential to the success of our nation’s shipping industry, as the Port of Duluth-Superior is the largest U.S. port by tonnage on the Great Lakes and in the top 20 largest ports in the country. The port is also one of the largest marine gateways for U.S. trade with Canada, Wisconsin’s No. 1 trade partner,” Evers wrote in support of the project in an Aug. 2 letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Evers noted that a refurbished Blatnik Bridge, one of his top priorities since 2019, will improve national supply chains and boost regional economic growth while benefiting hundreds of communities across both states.
The bridge replacement project will improve safety and accommodate oversize and overweight loads. Average annual daily traffic crossing the Blatnick Bridge is 33,000 vehicles, according to MnDOT.
Load posted for 40 tons, the bridge has been described as the epicenter for long-distance freight transportation (carrying Interstate 535 and U.S. Highway 53) due to its location connecting the Port of Duluth in Minnesota to Superior, Wis., over a tributary of Lake Superior. Freight handled there supports industries including agriculture, construction, forestry, manufacturing and mining.
“The bridge is near the end of its useful life. We cannot afford to lose the use of this bridge,” said John Hausladen, president and CEO of Minnesota Trucking Association. “It is the easiest, most direct route to Minnesota for Superior, Wis.-based fleets. Loss of the bridge would divert freight onto local streets, increasing the risk of crashes and increasing emissions as vehicles navigate through multiple stoplights.”
Carl Svendsen, chief strategy officer of Halvor Lines Inc. and an MTA member whose fleet is located in Superior, said, “A large portion of our eastbound freight, particularly for our northern Minnesota-based customers, crosses the bridge to gain access to U.S. Highways 2 and 53. Its location and our headquarters location at the base of the bridge are mission-critical to our business.”
Svendsen fully supports the project even though construction would impact his business.
“We are excited for the enhanced safety and usability of the reconstructed bridge and its connections, but will be sacrificing some property and buildings as a result,” he noted. “The process to date has been inclusive of the thoughts and ideas of community members, and it’s clear that the WisDOT and MnDOT teams are taking all factors into account.”
Although Svendsen said the bridge currently is safe, trucks and other vehicles experience continuous delays due to routine maintenance and structural repair. Also, the 40-ton weight restriction creates challenges for some freight movements in and out of the Port of Duluth since the bridge cannot reasonably accommodate overweight loads, he added.
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“It’s expected that if the bridge isn’t replaced, there will be further weight restrictions,” Svendsen said, noting that a comprehensive bridge reconstruction project along with a current interchange project involving I-35, I-535 and Highway 53 would enhance safe, efficient freight movements through the Duluth-Superior area.
Federal funds would be used to pay for a large portion of the project and streamline scheduling. Total costs would be determined once future design work is completed. The bridge project would completely replace or rehabilitate its structural elements to restore it to good condition with enhanced climate and weather resilience. A redesigned bridge span and Wisconsin approach would improve safety and efficiency, with added bicycle and pedestrian facilities for nonvehicle mobility and recreation.