Coping with bridge closures

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December 6, 2010
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch
// Many frustrated that Lowry, Plymouth bridges are out of commission; others welcome the peace and quiet //

Northeast is no stranger to downed bridges.

The Lowry Bridge was blown up in 2009, the Camden bridge closed for four months last summer, and of course, the 35W bridge was out for a year.

Now a surprise corrosion problem has closed the Plymouth Avenue bridge, and city staff think it could remain closed all winter before permanent repairs can be made. The good news is that an analysis underway should indicate by the end of the year whether the bridge can reopen to pedestrians and bikes. The bad news is that two bridges — the Plymouth and Lowry — will likely remain out of the vehicular traffic grid for months to come.

The Lowry Bridge closed in the spring of 2008 after a pier rotated out of alignment. Its reopening date was recently pushed back to June 2012.

The scope of Plymouth bridge repair work is not yet determined, but city staff say repairs likely won’t begin until next spring or summer.

Northeast reaction to the bridge closures is mixed. Some nearby businesses say sales are down as much as 40 percent. Commuters complain about traffic backed up for blocks on the Broadway bridge detour. But other residents living near closed bridges like the quiet, and some even think crime might have gone down as a result of the closures.

Status of bridge work

It was a bit of a shock when city engineers found corroded cables in the internal Plymouth bridge structure. Corrosion isn’t supposed to happen there, and the corrosion wasn’t even located in a spot that inspectors normally check. The bridge is less than 30 years old — its lifespan is supposed to be 75.

“It was a surprise to everybody,” said Project Manager Jack Yuzna.

He said the Plymouth bridge design is a rare style here, and the original company that designed the bridge doesn’t seem to be in business anymore. A consultant familiar with the design came from Florida last month to inspect the bridge and conduct computer modeling to figure out where the bridge’s current capacity stands.

Based on that analysis, it’s possible they could decide in December or January that the bridge could reopen to cars, and only ban heavier trucks. But it isn’t likely, according to city staff. Yuzna doesn’t think they were being overly cautious when they decided to close the bridge.

“We found damage, we knew there was a problem, we investigated it very thoroughly and we took very seriously the closing of this bridge,” Yuzna said.

Public Works Director Steve Kotke said the bridge is generally still in good shape, save for the components that have absorbed moisture and rusted. Yuzna said it will likely take much of the winter to develop a repair plan, find project funding, route the approval process through the City Council, and bid out the work.

Lowry Bridge work will keep moving, however.

“We work long hours every day, and we plan to work all the way the through the winter,” said Hennepin County Project Engineer Paul Backer.

Nevertheless, the project’s end date was pushed back six months. Workers discovered during construction they would need to lay the foundations deeper than originally planned. In addition, Backer said, Hennepin County was forced to find additional financing to replace a section of Lowry Avenue west of the bridge, also delaying the bridge opening.

The impact on Northeast

Northeast businesses are counting down the days until the bridges reopen.

“It’s a nightmare during rush hour,” said Bob Marget, owner of the River Liquor store, which is located right off the Lowry Bridge. His said his shop isn’t on the way home anymore for his North side customers, and it’s tough for them to take an extra 10 minutes to sit through traffic in order to visit his store. He said his volume is down 35–40 percent.

Lunch business is also down at Tony Jaros River Garden.

“Today we had some regulars come out of the blue that we haven’t seen in six months,” said Tarole Rettke, a waitress and cook. “They used to come once a week.”

But nights are still solid and weekends are busy, she said.

“If someone wants a Greenie, they’re going to find it,” she said, of the bar’s signature drink.

Todd Parker, owner of the Northeast Yacht Club near the Plymouth Avenue bridge, said his lunch business was down 30 percent the first week the bridge was closed. Some of his customers simply don’t want to deal with traffic on Broadway to cross the river, he said.

“It’s backed up for a couple of blocks every rush hour,” he said.

Kotke said most of the detoured bridge traffic is indeed shifting to Broadway. To help move vehicles through, the city adjusted the traffic signal at Broadway & Marshall.

“It’s not great, but traffic is moving,” he said.

Some of the residents that live near the closed bridges don’t mind the detour a bit.

“Without a doubt it is very quiet. I hear the river flowing and I live a block-and-a-half away,” said Michael Rainville. “The Plymouth bridge sees 10,000 cars a day crossing it, so the quiet is noticeable.”

Rainville is starting to wonder whether vehicles even need the Plymouth Avenue bridge — maybe the city should simply convert it into the “Stone Arch bridge of the North” and keep it closed to cars, he said.

Other residents are pleased with what they see as a downturn in crime while the bridges are closed. John Schulte, president of the Northeast Citizen Patrol, said he thinks criminals often take advantage of the bridges as a quick getaway to I-94 or North Minneapolis.

“Neighbors talk to each other; they know it happens,” he said. “There is definitely a reduction in livability crimes: thefts from cars, home break-ins, thefts from the yard, garage break-ins.”

Aside from quick trips across the river, there are bigger connections on hold as well.

Amy Fields, general manager of the Eastside Food Co-op, said she hasn’t attended community meetings in North Minneapolis since the Lowry Bridge came down, and she’s looking forward to 2012 as an opportunity to rebuild those connections. Neighborhoods will need to get reacquainted when all the bridge connections are open again, she said. Plenty of students here go to North side schools, she said, and the North side school offerings are changing. In addition, both communities are working to rebuild after the foreclosure crisis.

“It appears to me that people are just waiting to see what will happen in 2012,” Fields said. “Since the Eastside Food Coop has been in business, having bridges down has been a fact of life.”

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