Minnesota River Bridge: an E for Effort

The new I-35W Minnesota River Bridge will include a “pedestrian trail” to accommodate walkers and bikers across the Minnesota River. This is great news for folks commuting across the Minnesota River, as the nearest year-round crossing of the river is seven miles downstream at I-494. 

There’s a catch, though. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) released the final plans for the crossing this past July, and the trail stops short of clearing the annual flood line on the Minnesota River Bottoms. According to correspondence with MnDOT, the plans were designed to connect the new trail to an existing recreational trail, the Black Dog Trail. Travelers will exit the new bridge on a ramp that hugs the inside of the new on-ramp to northbound I-35W from Black Dog Road, cross the exit and entrance ramps to Black Dog Road, and proceed onto the existing Black Dog Trail.

History of Flooding

Black Dog Trail has spent 116 days under floodwater from the Minnesota River in 2019 already. The flooding is so deep that river current is noticeable to observers. Last year, when some of the annual flooding subsided, I visited the trail and noticed a Northern Pike suspended in the chain link fence that marks the property boundary between the MnDOT right-of-way and Northern Power. The fish had presumably been minding its own business, traveling with the current of the river, unaware that some humans had erected a barrier to denote what-was-whose when the water levels were down. His gills didn’t pass through the fencing, and his final resting place made for an uncomfortable reminder of the power of nature on my commutes for several weeks. 

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Alternative — Eliminated — Designs Avoid the Problem

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Early plans for the project included several access options that circumvented the low points on the Black Dog Trail. One such plan, Southeast 2 — also called the Box-Culvert option — offered to deliver travelers under the proposed entrance-exit ramps. This proposal was rejected because the route “would be susceptible to flood events, presenting a safety hazard for trail users.” Another option, Southeast 1 Phase II would have routed trail users over the entrance-exit ramps. It’s unclear why this solution wasn’t pursued. MnDOT correspondence has confirmed that the trail over the entrance/exit was not in the final proposals for construction. This option was assessed at $9,200, so budget likely wasn’t a factor. 

So how did all of this unfold? The I-35W Minnesota River Bridge was assessed for replacement as part of the 35W Reconstruction Project. This new bridge needed to include designs to accommodate bikers and pedestrians, per Minnesota law 165.14 Subd. 4. (d): “All bridge projects … must include bicycle and pedestrian accommodations if both sides of the bridge are located in a city.”

According to the Environmental Assessment published in December 2017, several crossing options were considered. Through meetings with a Technical Advisory Committee, the more popular alignment options were bundled into the East Option, a pedestrian trail that would run on the east side of the NB I-35W bridge from the Lyndale Lot to Black Dog Road. This option was presented along with other topics of community interest at an open house in Bloomington on January 11, 2018. 

Instead of an alignment that goes above or around the low areas, the final proposal describes a “shared-use path on the inside of the on-ramp to Northbound I-35W.” In case you didn’t catch that, that was an access ramp that travels south from the brand-new bridge, then takes a quick 180-degree turn north to a road notorious for flooding — so notorious, in fact, that Burnsville passed its ownership to Xcel Energy in 2014 to avoid paying for the ramp’s maintenance. Black Dog Road and the Black Dog Power Plant have been closed for long periods already this year. Apparently any “accommodations” for pedestrians and bikers stop there. 

Perfectly Balanced Aerial Future

An Obvious Solution

The solution seems straightforward enough: Collaborate with MnDOT to find a route that is accessible above the floodplain to ensure year-round access. Among the obvious options: Raise the existing trail out of the floodplain and add a crossing over the exit ramps to allow straight north-south travel to the new trail. Raising the existing trail would, of course, still require travelers somehow to access the ramp that ends at Black Dog Road, and this solution is “cost prohibitive” to begin with. A bridge over the exit ramps may be an expensive option as well, but with a $120 million budget, the project has some room to work with. 

Burnsville staff have expressed sympathy toward the bike commuters voicing their concerns but ultimately refer us to MnDOT. “The project is well on the way. This is a MnDOT Project,” said Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz in an email. At the same time, MnDOT staff have commented that “Burnsville needs to be involved” in the solution because “it’s their trail.”

Of course, because of the geographic constraints, the solution will involve trail users traveling straight north-south either under or over the highway exit ramps, so the solution needs to involve MnDOT. It would have been easier had they identified that before they brought in the work crews. Meanwhile, Burnsville has been less than enthusiastic about engaging in conversations with concerned citizens.

With all of this back-and-forth, it’s easy to see how a gaping hole developed in this project between the two entities. That doesn’t excuse MnDOT for plunging the exit ramp from its new trail below the flood line. Clearly, sub-par engineering standards were applied to the pedestrian plans. So we can only hope that getting MnDOT and Burnsville planners together to iron this out will be the beginning of the end. 

Black Dog And Strada

Taxpayers haven’t been waiting decades to use this bridge only some of the time. MnDOT doesn’t get credit for building a trail that delivers travelers 90 percent of the way to their destination. Burnsville isn’t off the hook either, having been involved in discussions about the project from the beginning. It’s not that either party is unaware of the problems, it’s that they apparently don’t yet care. 

Contours Below 700

So what now? We make them care. We make them know that travel by bike is here to stay and that this corridor is a critical connection between the south metro and regional destinations north of the river. They need to know that failing to upgrade this connector is a safety hazard, not merely an inconvenience. They also need to hear that once the project is done right, people will be free to commute by bike and on foot across the Minnesota River year round, alleviating congestion and making healthier cities (and people). Cities that are transportation-limited can’t grow, but the south metro wants to grow, and we’re here to help. 

Black Dog Flooding

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22 thoughts on “Minnesota River Bridge: an E for Effort

    1. Monte Castleman

      It didn’t, unless you call the approximately 2 feet of concrete curb on either side a “sidewalk”.

      But yes, you could have just walked across like any other country bridge not on an interstate.

  1. Monte Castleman

    I don’t disagree with the sentiment, and I think MnDOT does realize this is rather sub-optimal. but you can understand why MnDOT might not want to spend a lot of money on something that will be discarded when the Black Dog Road ramps go away.

    As for having “room to work with” with $120 million, the project has already been value engineered to the point we’re building substandard lanes and shoulders (4-11-11-12-12-10) configuration IRC.

    No way can you build an overpass over the exit ramps for $9,200. Maybe it was supposed to be $9,200,000?

      1. Monte Castleman

        How is going from 7 lanes to 8 a 33% increase?

        But I figured someone would bring up the new northbound auxiliary lane. This project triggered the municipal consent requirement due to needing permanent right-of-way. I’m thinking the likely result of trying to value engineer it out would be Burnsville refusing consent project until they put it back in. Bloomington in fact made noises about refusing consent when MnDOT was balking at rebuilding the 106th street overpasses. In theory since it’s an interstate MnDOT could take it to binding arbitration, but it’s easier just do do what cities want if it’s something within reason.

    1. Cory Wagner

      There can’t be much traffic on the northbound ramp, especially when it’s closed due to flooding, so why can’t the trail cross the ramp? Even if it’s only open when the ramp is closed, we’d at least have way to get to or from the bridge. A little pavement and we have a high water crossing.

      As planned, we have another crossing, like Old Cedar Bridge and the trail upstream by Hwy 169, that are also under water on the south side of the river much of the summer.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Consolidating the Cliff Road and Black Dog Road interchanges into a new one at 118th Street (a folded diamond to the north) is in a number of Burnsville planning documents for the area along with their grandiose plans for the “North Gateway, plans that have been around since 1996 and are still decades away from realization. At the moment there’s wetlands on the east side of the freeway and soil contaminated with all kinds of horrible stuff on the west side, so just closing down the ramps and building an access road to Black Dog, much less building the new interchange, is massively out of scope for this current project.

      1. Risa Hustad Post author

        Hi Monte, I agree that the $9,200 figure seems odd. It is listed in the Environmental Assessment at that price though – Page 4-34, Table 4.6. We did ask Scott Pedersen (engineer) and Kirsten Klein (communications director) about that figure and they were not able to get us more information on how that alignment option was assessed at that price. For this reason I chose to stick with the figure in the original document.

        I’m not aware of any plans to remove or privatize the Black Dog entrance and exit ramps. They are being rebuilt as part of this project, so I’m assuming they’re part of the city and state’s long-term plans. They appear in the “North Gateway” plans you mentioned: http://www.burnsvillemn.gov/DocumentCenter/View/535/Gateway-Design-Guidelines?bidId=

        Are you aware of City of Burnsville plans that preclude flood resiliency to the access route to the new multi-use trail on the Minnesota River Bridge? I understand that the River Quadrant development plans (another project without a start date) were a reason that MnDOT and the City of Burnsville chose not to plan for access to the new bridge with this project. So in 30 years when there’s a park where the Quarry is now, bikers and pedestrians will cross the highway on another multi-use bridge, apparently. That will be nice for people – in 30 years.

        As for the budget of the project, it needed to be assessed based on the scope of the project. The project included building pedestrian accommodations, these are not reasonable accommodations.

        1. Monte Castleman

          They don’t do a good job blotting out the Old Cliff and Black Dog Road maps in the diagrams on the Gateway Design Guidelines, but on page 11 it spells it out:
          ” The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) have concluded that the long range plans for this corridor should include the consolidation of the Black Dog Road and Cliff
          Road interchanges into a single, full-movement interchange, to be located roughly halfway between them ”

          Looking at the EAW, I see now that $9,200 figure. Why it is so low is that depends on the Black Dog Road northbound ramps being closed so it’s only paying for a 100 feet of trail on the ground across where the former ramps used to be. Closing the ramps is not going to happen at this point. The people involved with the garbage transfer station and toxic waste contaminated dump seem to be not easy to negotiate with (the Gateway Document in fact characterizes it as a “rich history”). I recall they threatened to sue when MnDOT proposed closing the southbound exit ramp as part of the 2006 Urban Partnership project that added the southbound auxiliary lane over the river.

          It seems the best case scenario for non-motorized uses would have been to for a bridge over the Black Dog Road ramps, but it was not even presented as an option, probably because of the cost. I’d expect the cost to be at least $5 million. Calling it “Phase II” suggests to me that their was no intention to build a bridge now but the penciled it in for a future possibility if political and financial capital for it materialize from someplace. At the moment Burnsville seems to be spending theirs to try to get a pedestrian bridge over Highway 13 by the transit station.

          If we should have spent that money for something that’s only needed a few decades until the Gateway project that’s a fair point and i don’t have a strong opinion on the matter. It’s hard because a few decades is a long time if you’re on a bicycle wanting to cross and a short time for an engineer designing a structure to last a minimum of 50 years.

          1. Risa Hustad Post author

            Monte, I really appreciate all the information you’ve added to the conversation.
            We have requested an above-grade crossing for the Black Dog exits ramps. At some level I must admit that it’s confusing to me that the DOT would tear out and rebuild a pair of redundant ramps that will only be in use for another 2 decades while at the same time not planning for year-round access to a ped/bike lane that will last until the next bridge reconstruction (50 years?).
            Let me know if you have any insight there.

            1. Monte Castleman

              If you’re asking me why MnDot does some bone-headed things in regard to bicycle / ped access, I have no explanation. Another good one was simply closing the sidewalk on the Hastings Bridge for the duration of the project, even though there was never any active construction that affected it.

              As for why rebuild the Black Dog Road ramps, the thought process is likely as follows. It might seem that there’s plenty of space for the freeway there, but there’s not. On the east is a wetland and on the west is toxic soil. You’re not supposed to fill in wetlands unless there’s no reasonable alternative, and you don’t want to deal with contaminated soil. Likely if they had asked to fill in the wetlands they would have been told to deal with the soil instead, and even if they had been allowed to, buying wetland credits is expensive.

              Because of these issues MnDOT was so determined not to expand the footprint of the freeway that they were considering retaining walls before deciding to narrow the lanes and shoulders to below standard instead. So no room to build a frontage road either without dealing with the soil or the wetlands. Meanwhile if they removed the Black Dog ramps without providing that road MnDOT was virtually assured of getting sued. So best just to put the ramps back where they already were, and Burnsville gets to find funding to deal with the soil if they want their new interchange.

  2. Matt O

    Interesting article about the 35W bridge, but I was surprised by the statement in the first paragraph that the nearest year-round crossing of the river is seven miles downstream at I-494. What about the crossing at Cedar? Or is that not year round (I’ve never tried to cross in the winter)?

    1. Kirk S

      Matt, I dont think that crossing has been open yet this summer (same story…flooding). They created this great bridge across part of the river, and the south side has been flooded most of the year. Also worth stating the crossing at 494 is among the worst pavement in the city.

  3. Sam Wils

    Thanks for writing this! Unfortunately it seems we are once again learning about these issues far too late in the process.

    My initial reaction is that Burnsville should have withheld municipal consent until MNDOT proposed a project that would adequately meet the needs of all users. This seems to be the best leverage we have when dealing with an agency as intransigent as MNDOT.

    The Army Corp of Engineers has large amounts of surplus fill available from r iver channel maintenance. Perhaps this could be used to raise trail beds.

    1. Monte Castleman

      The issue isn’t finding or paying for fill material. The issue it that somehow the trail needs to cross the northbound ramps. If they cross at-grade at the intersection of Black Dog Road as currently planned, they need to descend to below the level that routinely floods. Going under wouldn’t solve the problems with flooding; going over with a bridge would be expensive and simply removing the ramps would likely result in litigation.

    2. Risa Hustad Post author

      Hi Sam, thanks for reading.

      I’ve thought a lot about this too. I can’t help but feel bitter that the City of Burnsville did not work harder for a better alignment option for their side of the trail. It seems to go against the city’s interests.

      They apparently are using their “bargaining chips” with MnDOT on something else at the moment. Developing a complete access plan for the new bridge should have been part of the initial planning proposals. We’ll have to make do, asking the city to plan a solution on their own.

  4. GlowBoy

    I can understand that raising Black Dog Road itself above ever-higher floodwaters is cost-prohibitive, but it is essential that we somehow at least have a connection between the new bridge and Burnsville that will not flood.

    Both the Bloomington Ferry and TH77 crossings were underwater and impassible for months this year, meaning there was no way to cross the MN river between 494 and Shakopee. Since we can no longer assume these will be 20-year (or whatever infrequent interval) flood events, we need to do better than that.

    1. Risa Hustad Post author

      Yes, the only barrier between bikes/peds and a year-round crossings is laziness. You can say that money is the limiting factor here, but when you are rebuilding 2 bridges carrying 8 lanes of motor vehicle traffic at $128m the missing link is political will.

      I want to clarify, the most direct access to the new bridge is the Black Dog TRAIL. Black Dog Road is no longer a public road, and taking the Minnesota River Greenway from Nichols Road is about 4 miles. By comparison, Black Dog Trail is 1 mile.

      Please communicate your thoughts to the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the City of Burnsville. If you can collaborate to accommodate 8 lanes of vehicle traffic through a flood zone you can upgrade 1 mile of multi-use trail for the rest of us.

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