Duluth's Blatnik Bridge will be rebuilt, likely to feature new Wisconsin connector
The bridge won’t be refurbished. Instead, it will be a full replacement beginning in 2028, with construction lasting five or six years.
SUPERIOR — Residents have until July 21 to address new details about the future of the Blatnik Bridge, which has been targeted for replacement by transportation departments from both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Among the latest developments related to the estimated $1.8 billion project: The bridge won’t be refurbished. Instead, it will be a full replacement beginning in 2028, with construction lasting five or six years, said Marc Bowker, Eau Claire-based project manager for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“The actual rehabilitation we have ruled out,” Bowker said. “It doesn’t become financially feasible to rehabilitate the entire structure.”
Transportation officials are also recommending that a new bridge exits onto U.S. Highway 53 South, instead of Hammond Avenue in Superior. In order to do so, some existing businesses and residences in the city’s north side will need to be relocated, officials said.
“I certainly support it landing on Highway 53,” Superior Mayor Jim Paine said. “That makes so much more sense. Landing directly onto Hammond is dangerous. It would be a real step forward to land that thing correctly.”
The News Tribune visited the area Monday to see activity up close. Police officers were busy clearing a rear-end crash, something that happens with frequency in the area as traffic lines get backed up and distracted drivers tend to plow into one another.
“Where northbound and southbound Highway 53 cross each other, we have a signalized intersection and the morning commute can have significant queues,” Bowker said. “Those queues create crashes.”
Bridge traffic at 55 mph currently lands on Hammond Avenue, where the speed limit drops to 30 mph. Ground freight and other traffic passing through the city is required to twist through an interchange to go south on Highway 53.
“It is a tight turn,” said Teresa Flood.
Teresa and Ed Flood are owners of The Kitchen, on North Fifth Street in the North End neighborhood that features the bridge.
“We get a lot of traffic from that,” Teresa said of the current interchange, which causes some users to leave Hammond and use North Fifth Street as a workaround to backups on the interchange. “It’s not bad for us,” she added.
“To get here is really easy,” Ed Flood said during a busy morning breakfast crowd Monday. “Well over half our clientele is from Minnesota, especially for lunch.”
Residents have until July 21 to express their opinions on alternatives presented for a bridge replacement. To comment on the bridge alignment and interchange options, residents and users are asked to visit the project website at mndot.gov/d1/projects/blatnik-bridge .
A new bridge will be built on either side of the existing Blatnik Bridge alignment, and Bowker said shipping channels will be maintained throughout construction.
Opened in 1961, the bridge suffers from a debilitating rust problem that can only be repaired and never reversed. Officials have been planning for the bridge’s future since 2016. The bridge is currently reduced to single-lane traffic in both directions as it undergoes $6.3 million in regularly scheduled maintenance and repair.
Any of the proposed alignments — either closer to Lake Superior or farther into St. Louis Bay — will allow for the existing Blatnik Bridge to carry traffic during construction of a new bridge, Bowker said.
“We would be able to build a portion of the bridge while keeping traffic on the existing bridge if we build parallel to it,” Bowker said, while acknowledging some traffic hiccups along the way as portions of a new bridge are tied into existing roadways.
Bowker noted of a new bridge: “The most significant change would be the touchdown on the Wisconsin side.”
WisDOT has recommended tying into Highway 53 for a variety of reasons, he explained, including a reduction in crashes and better freight mobility. “The current configuration with really tight loops coming off the bridge makes it a challenge for freight,” he said.
Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction work ongoing in Duluth is also being done to eliminate traffic hazards, such as blind merges, and accommodate freight traffic into and out of the port. Because of weight restrictions on Blatnik Bridge, oversize loads between Duluth and Superior are currently required to use the Bong Bridge.
A rebuilt Blatnik, along with completion of the Twin Ports Interchange in 2024, will make it so all freight traffic can flow freely over either bridge.
A new bridge would feature spurs landing on Hammond Avenue and into the neighborhood that would, in theory, eliminate the need for travelers to find their own workarounds.
“A reduction in traffic of people trying to fly through the neighborhood is something they would be looking forward to,” Bowker said of neighborhood residents.
Paine agreed, even though he acknowledged concern for folks and businesses that would require relocation. He noted businesses in the city such as Earth Rider Brewery and the Anchor Bar don’t suffer for people trying to find them. He also added that Hammond Avenue is not a highway.
“Overall, it will be good,” Paine said. “It’s nice to look at a new north end and make things function for everybody. It’s not right now. We’re landing a bridge in the middle of a neighborhood, and it’s done some harm. This is an opportunity to fix that and it’s really exciting.”
Bowker used to work out of the WisDOT office in Superior, and said the question of realigning Blatnik Bridge with Highway 53 has been an ongoing question for 30 years.
“We always looked at it and said one of the best things we can do is change main traffic flow to be on Highway 53,” he said.
Of course, Bowker also said public comment could sway things in other directions.
"If we get a large outcry about how, 'We like this configuration,' we may need to consider it further," Bowker said.
For the owners of The Kitchen, a new bridge and connector figure to remain far enough away to not risk their own relocation.
“With all things that have gone on with the can of worms and construction in Duluth,” Teresa Flood said, “customers still find their way here.”