Removing our Least Useful Bridges

There has been a lot of discussion across the internet lately about how we’re digging ourselves into a financial hole by overspending on infrastructure that isn’t very productive. Chuck’s post a few days ago called Paved with good intentions is a good example. For the purposes of this post, let’s just assume we agree with Chuck, and that something needs to change in the way we view infrastructure.

As many of our bridges continue to age and the list of bridges that need repaired or replaced continues to get longer, at some point, we should consider whether or not all of our existing bridges are worth replacing. I think most people would agree that there are probably a few bridges out there where the replacement costs are simply too great to justify the expense, but how do we determine which ones? This is a difficult discussion to have, in part because for every bridge that I might consider removing, I can think of two others that we should consider building (for example, why have we never constructed a France Avenue extension over the railroad tracks to Lake Street?). Removing a bridge will almost always be unpopular with the neighborhood, but inherent in this discussion is the understanding that we’re going to have to make difficult and unpopular decisions.

The Stillwater Bridge immediately comes to mind as a candidate for removal simply because of the unusually large replacement costs, but I’ll leave this case study for others to consider.

Instead, here are some of my ideas about a few local bridges:

Cedar Avenue Bridge (over Lake Nokomis), Minneapolis

Cedar Avenue over Lake Nokomis

The Cedar Avenue bridge over Lake Nokomis (map) was dubbed Planning Blunder #9 by Streets.mn authors Bill and Alex. This bridge is a clear example of a roadway that went over when it should have gone around. In hindsight, I think nearly everyone would agree that if we could start over, we’d make a different decision about this bridge. But now that it’s in place, does it make financial sense to remove it? From an engineering standpoint, traffic could certainly be re-routed west along a reconstructed Nokomis Parkway with a few intersection and signal improvements (which would actually allow the City to tackle a few longstanding traffic, parking, and design issues they’ve had around Fat Lorenzo’s – hello improved outdoor dining area!). This would probably be cheaper than replacing the bridge, but it would be close. This would be an interesting case study to develop some firm numbers for.

Midtown Corridor Bridges

A few years back, the City of Minneapolis conducted a study of the couple dozen bridges spanning the Midtown Greenway. The purpose of the study was to determine the historical significance of the former freight rail trench and the bridges that cross it. Given the purpose of the study, it’s not surprising that bridge removal was not recommended, although it’s significant that the study considered it briefly. The study recommended reclassifying some of the bridges as bike/ped bridges in an effort to buy some time before the bridges would need to be removed or replaced. This is a good idea, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. Eventually, bridges will fall under their own weight even without loading. I don’t think the City has made any final decisions about whether these bridges will be removed, replaced, or reclassified, but a historical designation would surely give them fewer options. The impact of removing (rather than replacing or reclassifying) some of these bridges is not fully known. Since many of these bridges carry only a few hundred vehicles per day, it’s hard to justify the $1.8 million replacement cost. A few of these bridges are probably some of the best candidates out there for full removal.

60th Street Bridge, Sunfish Lake

The 60th Street / Acorn Drive / Pieper Road bridge over I-494 between Inver Grove Heights and Sunfish Lake is hard to justify by nearly any criteria (map). The bridge leads to a cul-de-sac in Sunfish Lake that serves only about 8 (not-as-expensive-as-you-would-think) homes. This is not a short span bridge, and there are at least a half-dozen feasible alternative ways to provide access to these residential properties that doesn’t involve building a bridge. This bridge probably carries less than 100 vehicles per day. RUMOR ALERT: I remember hearing at some point that the owners of these 8 homes had privately funded the bridge, but a quick Google search doesn’t provide any documentation of this. If anyone can confirm or deny this, please let me know by leaving a comment. Privately funded or not, this bridge seems unnecessary (at least, as long as Acorn Drive is a residential cul-de-sac).

Minnehaha Parkway Bridges, Minneapolis

This example hits close to home, literally, since I live a stone’s throw from the three bridges over Minnehaha Creek within a few hundred feet of the intersection of Portland Avenue and Minnehaha Parkway (map).  The three bridges – Portland Avenue, 50th Street to the west, Minnehaha Parkway to the east – seem redundant. When I tally up the number of roads (including frontage roads), and the number of intersections that exist within a two or three block area, it seems like with a little bit of careful planning we could eliminate at least one of these bridges and still allow all these roads to intersect. In this case, however, it may not be economically feasible to do so, even if the neighborhood was supportive. These bridges have very short spans and are also very low (maybe 10′ above creek level?). These will be some of the least expensive bridges to replace (and they have the lowest risk of causing injury or harm if they collapse), so we might find it would be less expensive to simply replace the bridges than to figure out how to effectively remove them.

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These are just a few of my ideas, but I’d like to hear some of yours. Which bridges do you think are the least productive? Which are the least essential? Which are the most expendable?


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10 Responses to Removing our Least Useful Bridges

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 2, 2012 at 9:09 am #

    Ahh, but Sunfish Lake is #3 on the list of Minnesota cities by per capita income, coming in at $82,347/person. Thus, the need for a bridge to a tiny cul de sac.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Minnesota_lo

  2. David Greene May 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    I'm with you on the Cedar Ave. bridge and I don't know enough about the Sunfish Lake bridge.

    But I very much disagree on the others. These are not useless bridges. They are important connections within and between communities. This is not just about moving vehicles. Transportation is not simply getting someone from point A to point B. It's about moving people so they can _interact_ with each other and that means connecting communities. The CM&StP/Greenway trench is a huge physical barrier. Thankfully our forebears had the insight to maintain community connectedness. Would that our '50's and '60's leaders done the same when I-94 was built.

    You want to talk about uselss bridges, here are a few:

    I-35W St. Anthony bridge. We got along just fine without it for almost two years. In fact we can tear up I-35W completely between I-94 and MN-36. Our freeway network is hugely overbuilt and we might as well start reclaiming the land now because it's going to have to happen eventually (see Milwaukee).

    Every bridge on the 610 corridor. What a colossal waste of money that monument to sprawl is!

    Ditto on the new 212 corridor.

    • Froggie May 3, 2012 at 4:38 am #

      So you disagree with the calculation that the loss of the I-35W bridge was costing the state $400K PER DAY?

      • Nathaniel M Hood
        Nathaniel May 3, 2012 at 5:03 am #

        See "The emperor has no clothes" @ StrongTowns.org Podcast:

        http://www.strongtowns.org/strong-towns-podcast/2

      • David Greene May 3, 2012 at 7:14 am #

        I do indeed. No one I know in the transportation field (and admittedly I don't know that many) could figure out where that number came from.

        I drove the I-94 corridor throughout the whole episode. It had no worse traffic then than it does now. Induced demand is real.

        • David Levinson
          David Levinson May 3, 2012 at 7:38 am #

          I roughly know where the figure came from (assuming fixed demand, and all traffic reroutes as the traffic planners say it should, and so on) and have concluded it is too high.

          Our ex post estimates are available here: http://nexus.umn.edu/Projects/BRIDGE/Mn-DOT2010-2

          and we estimated about $ 49,000 per day

          • Nathaniel M Hood
            Nathaniel May 3, 2012 at 7:51 am #

            Quote:

            "The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) estimated rerouting alone could cost individual travelers and commercial vehicles $400,000 daily. Xie and Levinson (2009) estimated a lower, but still large,road user cost, between $71,000 and $220,000 per day."

          • David Levinson
            David Levinson May 5, 2012 at 3:36 am #

            More official write-up of how MnDOT came up with their number, it seems DEED has a writeup, but no real report.

            http://www.positivelyminnesota.com/Data_Publicati

  3. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel May 2, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    There is an interesting case of a bridge closure in St. Paul. In Highland Park, along Edgecumbe and the start of Hamline, the city has closed the small Edgecumbe Bridge (see link below). It is now open to only pedestrians and bikes. I'm not sure if the bridge is structurally deficent, but that is my guess.

    Things worked out. The bridge never saw lots of traffic anyways, but unlike some suburban areas – there are many alternative routes to access the road beyond the bridge. From living in the neighborhood (down the road slightly), I can confirm that there has been no real noticeable change as a result of the closure.

    http://www.google.com/maps?q=st+paul+mn&hl=en

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm #

    a propos news story: http://www.newser.com/story/145081/thieves-make-o