Railroad bridge replacement could mean partial closure of Central Ave in 2014

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It might be the biggest, most organized pile of dirt ever seen in Northeast, and if preliminary plans stay in place, it will be on Central Avenue. Not along Central Avenue. On Central Avenue.

It could happen as soon as two years from now, because of plans to replace the railroad bridge that crosses Central Avenue south of 18th Avenue NE.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) owns the bridge, which holds Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks. Railroad and MnDOT officials couldn’t figure out a way to re-route trains that cross Central at that spot, so they devised a plan for what they call a “shoo-fly,” a temporary stretch of track to allow trains to by-pass the bridge reconstruction area.

If preliminary plans are followed, MnDOT will work on some construction items next to Central Avenue during 2013. Central Avenue will be closed between 14th and 18th avenues NE beginning in spring of 2014, and remain closed through that construction season. Southbound Central Avenue traffic will be diverted on Lowry Avenue to University Avenue to Broadway Street, and back to Central. Northbound Central Avenue traffic will be diverted on Broadway to Johnson Street, to Lowry, and back to Central.

The pile of dirt, or earth berm, or shoo-fly, will be built south of the existing bridge, and wide enough for two railroad tracks to cross Central and hook up with the existing tracks on each side of the existing bridge. The existing bridge will then be dismantled, a new bridge built in its place, and tracks laid across the new bridge to line up with the tracks at either end. Trains will then be re-routed over the new bridge, and the shoo-fly and its trackage removed.

MnDOT also plans to rebuild the roadway on Central Avenue between 14th and 18th, to allow for smoother rides and better pedestrian facilities for that stretch. When the work is done, Central will be re-opened.

At a July 24 open house at Northeast Library, MnDOT officials discussed the project with residents. State Rep. Diane Loeffler suggested that rather than building a shoo-fly and constructing the new bridge on the site, MnDOT could build the new bridge deck elsewhere and bring it in and set it in place, which would only require closing the tracks for a day or two. She also suggested that a bike path be included in the project, connecting bike paths east and west of Central so bicyclists would not have to cross Central in traffic.

MnDOT Metro West Area Engineer Ron Rauchle said the “drop in” idea was considered in the early planning stages, but was rejected when engineers found “a number of reasons why that option would not work at this location.”

Loeffler said that Central Avenue should not be closed for such an extensive period until every other alternative had been considered and found unworkable.

The existing bridge creates a key problem for that scenario, he said, because for a new bridge to be dropped in, its abutments would have to be in place, and they would not be able to build the new abutments while the existing bridge was still there.

“With the design of the existing bridge, they could not build the new abutments and keep” the tracks on the existing bridge operating.

Time, he said, is the major concern when considering the bike path idea. “That would take a lot more time to develop,” he said, and the current construction schedule would not allow for the extra planning and designing that would be needed if a bike path were included in the project.

“With the current project timeline, there just isn’t enough time” and the extra capabilities would require engineers to deal with “a lot of logistical things.”

Those issues, however, “wouldn’t preclude that from happening in the future.”

The existing bridge was built in 1924, and Rauchle said he’s not expecting any historic preservation concerns to slow the project down. “It’s my understanding,” he said, that thorough documentation of the existing bridge will be required prior to removing it. He said that process is “wrapping up” now.

The project is expected to cost between $13 million and $14 million, Rauchle said.

Another open house is planned for late fall, and MNDOT plans to go out for bids on the project next summer.

For more information on the bridge replacement project, see www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/hwy65mpls.