Washington Avenue Bridge: walkers, bikers restricted to center


The 14th-century Italian bridge that inspired it has withstood the ravages of time, World War II and a 1966 flood, but the 42-year-old Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis might not be strong enough to hold up pedestrians, Hennepin County officials decided last week.

The Ponte Vecchio (or Old Bridge) in Florence, Italy provided a model for what might have been on the Washington Avenue Bridge. Some planners saw the Minneapolis bridge’s upper pedestrian deck as a potential platform for a long row of buildings containing shops, cafes and other services. Something considerably less than that vision was finally built, and now even the downsized reality has proven too much for the bridge to bear.

That’s after engineers at URS Corp. started work on readying the Washington Avenue Bridge to carry trains running along the planned Central Corridor line between Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s widely expected that the bridge will need beefing up to support new rail traffic, but the necessity for remedial work to support existing pedestrian and bicycle traffic came as a surprise.

The county restricted walking and biking to the sheltered structure that runs down the center of the bridge’s upper level — only days before the start of the University of Minnesota’s fall semester, as crowds of students begin to cross the bridge on foot or bike to travel between the university’s East Bank and West Bank Minneapolis campuses.

Motor vehicle traffic on the bridge’s lower level wasn’t affected.

The move follows a string of bridge failures and closings in Minnesota over the past year. Most recently, bike and pedestrian traffic was forced to blend atop the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis when the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board let the Red Bull energy drink company block the bike lanes along the bridge’s middle portion with 25 eight-foot cubes for most of July as part of a marketing event, with several minor injuries reported due to collisions.

If URS has a familiar ring, it may be because the firm conducted inspections of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Preliminary results of reviews of the I-35W bridge collapse have revealed flaws not caught by those reviews, though the firm initially pressed MnDOT to approve extensive repair work.

Work to make the Washington Avenue Bridge strong enough to support people walking or riding bikes along its edges will continue well into next year. Temporary bike lanes under the overhanging eaves of the bridge’s upper-level sheltered walkway are now under construction.