Minneapolis: Will old Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad bridge last till replacement is ready?

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State highway officials are reconsidering two key aspects of a plan to replace the railroad bridge that crosses Central Avenue NE south of 18th Avenue NE: The project schedule, and whether or not to close Central. They’re still working out the pros and cons of several alternatives, and when that work is complete, they plan another round of community meetings before deciding on how to proceed.

Preliminary plans called for some preparatory work near Central Avenue during the fall of 2013, then, in spring of 2014, closing Central between 14th and 18th avenues NE, building an earth embankment across Central—called a “shoofly”—to temporarily replace the bridge, removing the bridge, building a new bridge in its place, removing the shoofly and re-opening Central.

“We’re reconsidering not only the staging of the project but the project schedule,” Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Metro West Area Engineer Ron Rauchle said in an interview.

“We don’t have plans as of yet” for the next round of public meetings on the project, he said, but they plan to work with residents, business people and local officials and “try to come to consensus” on the best plan.

After discussions about the earlier plan were underway, he said, MnDOT officials became more worried about the current bridge’s condition. “Our bridge inspectors went out there and were concerned about the accelerated deterioration of that bridge,” he said. “They asked, ‘Is there any way to start working on it [sooner], and not make this thing go through another winter?’”

MnDOT owns the bridge, which holds Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks. Rauchle said that MnDOT and BNSF people have tried to work out a way to re-route trains that use the existing bridge, but have been unsuccessful. “BNSF has a line to the south, but they say it’s [close to its] capacity,” Rauchle said. “There’s no way they can re-route that [traffic] for any extended period of time.”

If Central is closed for the project, southbound Central Avenue traffic would be diverted west on Lowry Avenue NE to University Avenue NE, south to Broadway Street NE and then back east to Central. Northbound Central Avenue traffic would be diverted on Broadway east to Johnson Street NE, then north to Lowry and back west to Central.

Rauchle said that local officials and business people asked MnDOT to take another look at the project with the aim of keeping Central Avenue open during the construction. They could, he said, keep Central open to automobile (not truck) traffic, one lane in each direction, if they build a temporary steel bridge south of the existing bridge, instead of building the shoofly. Trucks would still have to be re-routed, he said, because a temporary bridge would not have the vertical clearance needed for truck traffic.

It would also create some engineering challenges. “It’s got to carry train traffic,” he said, and would have to be “a much more significant structure” than a temporary bridge designed for automobile traffic.

“For sure it would cost more money,” Rauchle said. He said the temporary bridge would add about $4 million to the project’s cost, which is now estimated at $14 million.

“Another thing is safety. It’s always more safe to work without vehicle traffic around,” he said. Keeping Central open, he said, would also add to the construction time. “It could take us longer [to complete the project],” he said. “It could take us another two months.”

Whether the projected detour is for all traffic or for trucks only, Rauchle said, there will always be drivers who don’t follow the detour, and “some filtering of [vehicles] onto other roads in the area.”

He said the public meetings would likely be scheduled “in the near future…this winter…December or January.”