The stunning cost of keeping what we already have

The John A. Blatnik Bridge between Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin is due for a half-billion dollar repair in 2028. In the picture above you can see the remains of its predecessor, the Interstate Bridge, to the left. The high bridge replaced this combined rail and auto bridge in 1958. (PHOTO: Randan Pederson, Flickr CC)

The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently announced that Duluth’s John A. Blatnik Bridge, known locally as the “High Bridge,” would need to be replaced in 2028, less than seventy years after it opened to traffic in 1961.

Brady Slater of the Duluth News Tribune reported March 14 that Minnesota would be on the hook for $170-$230 million while Wisconsin would be responsible for the other half. That means the bridge could end up costing almost half a billion dollars.

Minnesota maintains the Blatnik Bridge. Meanwhile, Wisconsin maintains the Twin Ports’ other interstate bridge, the Richard I. Bong.

Nine years might seem a long way off. But rustling up that much cash and arranging to re-directing an extremely busy commuter and transportation route gives the state plenty to do.

The high bridge was named for Congressman John A. Blatnik in 1971. This former Chisholm teacher, state senator and WWII intelligence agent served Minnesota’s 8th District for 28 years, ultimately becoming chair of the powerful House Public Works committee. His funding connections helped ease the state burden in building the bridge in 1958.

Blatnik’s protege, Jim Oberstar, become his successor in 1974, serving 36 years in Congress. He also ascended to the chairmanship of the renamed Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

That means for 64 years, Northern Minnesota had powerful connections for federal transportation funding. That isn’t true anymore.

The the last three members of Congress — Republican Chip Cravaack, Democrat Rick Nolan, and current GOP U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber — each lack the seniority and status to pull in big federal dollars. Cravaack was a one-term backbencher. Both Nolan and Stauber became embattled incumbents trapped in the minority after winning their 8th District elections.

Possibly Stauber wins some federal funding for this, if he’s even still around in a few years, but he won’t have nearly the clout that Blatnik or Oberstar did. Indeed, changes to Congress and American politics make it unlikely anyone ever will.

About sixty miles north of this bridge on Highway 53 you’ll find another new bridge over a mine pit between Eveleth and Virginia. The state built this new bridge two years ago. Why? Because mining interests invoked a provision allowing them to terminate the lease for the old route when they needed to mine under the old highway. That project cost almost $250 million, including the large bridge, a smaller one, and a stretch of new highway.

If the 20th Century fostered an era of industrial expansion in Northern Minnesota, the 21st seems to be patch, patch, patch. Between just these two projects the state of Minnesota will have spent almost $1 billion just to keep highways and bridges we already have, to preserve an existing Northern Minnesota economic structure that’s been in decline for decades.

Indeed, the state purports to have few options. The Blatnik Bridge, built in the same generation as the I-35 bridge that collapsed in 2007, has already been repaired and reinforced to keep it safer.

But among these enormous bridge projects, we also find a charge for our current generation of leadership. How will we handle these enormous costs? Can we prevent future generations from getting hit with even higher price tags?

Automation. Climate change. The transforming nature of work. These factors might auger changes to the number of automobiles we put on the roads, or even the ways in which we travel.

And we should build structures to last longer than one below-average human lifetime.


  1. This is going to be an ongoing problem as infrastructure built during times of economic growth in the US (which meant more tax dollars) need to be repaired or replaced. The American Society of Civil Engineers has been showing this for years. You can look around the towns and see it on many streets that have been patched together for years. The repairs can only go so far. Then you throw in additional costs to build a structure to last longer if it is possible. These lifetime replacement costs are usually factored into the project decision making. The big question is where are we going to get the money to do all this work or what sacrifices are people willing to make. Will people want to give up their paved roads or pay more in taxes.

  2. Bigbassguy says

    If I were to put my engineer hat on, I’d look at several alternatives for getting traffic to and from Superior. We are practiced at analyzing the economics and social impacts of different projects.

    Both the “Bong” and the “Blatnik” run right into downtown Superior. Is that redundant?

    Too bad there isn’t a bypass around the town but that’s water under the bridge(s).

    Hopefully MNDOT will look at the condition of the bridge and really project its’ life span.

    Maybe a toll bridge is in order. It’s done all over the country, and basically, the users pay. I wish they would have done that in Stillwater.

  3. Bigbassguy says

    I’m sure any way we go is going to be spendy. That’s the price we pay for fun!

  4. Good piece, with points well taken. I have never seen sense in the Highway 53 bridge project, but a lot of expensive and questionable expenditures seem to slide through in Minnesota, like greased pigs. It seems even the mining interests can hardly believe it happened….

  5. Joe musich says

    Yea….I wonder which bridge gets more traffic 53 or Blatnik? As if a factor like that should make a difference when it comes to mining company bootlicking….

  6. It’s not only the lack of tenured incumbents at the congressional level, but at the state level as well. You need only to look at the named highways: US-53 north of Virginia (Irv Anderson), CR-77 from Tower to Cook (Doug Johnson), CR-4 north of Duluth (Rudy Perpich). Or, if you want, Ironworld and its subsequent iterations, practically a monument to Perpich himself.

    Those three men by themselves–to say nothing of the late Tom Rukavina, for example–were instrumental, with their high posts in the DFL, in doing their best to ensure the Range got the best through whatever it took, including the Taconite Production Tax. No doubt DFLers like Bakk and Tomassoni have kept the torch lit, but it speaks to the increasing bipartisan nature of the Range and the loss of attendant clout when your caucus is divided along partisan lines, swapping out incumbents with increasing frequency, and doesn’t comprise as large a portion of either party’s caucus.

    • CH
      Sounds like your proud that our past Range politicians took from others so us Rangers could have more than our fair share, more than we paid in. Then we name the roadway or bridge we built with other peoples money after them because they were so good at thievery. I’m blessed that I wasn’t raised with that line of morality.

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