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.
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.
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.
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.
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.