Wakota finally within reach
Better late than never.
Three years behind schedule and millions over budget, the final span of the reconstructed Interstate 494 Wakota Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River from Newport to South St. Paul stands six months from the finish line.
July 29 will mark the bridge's official opening.
For officials in tiny Newport, the city that has borne the brunt of an almost decade-long highway and bridge construction project, that date can't come soon enough.
"Its been long overdue and it will be great to have it completed," said Tim Geraghty, Newport's mayor. Geraghty was in his first run as mayor when planning for the Highway 61 and Wakota Bridge reconstruction began in the 1990s.
The $300 million project was expected to take five years. But seemingly from the start, the bridge's construction was beset by delays.
Cracks in the westbound span forced a retrofit of the half-finished bridge in 2004, slowing work. And a dispute between MnDOT and the bridge contractor led to the controversial decision to re-bid the contract for construction of the eastbound span in 2007.
That move drew the ire of lawmakers and local officials and led to hearings at the State Capitol that probed the cause of the construction delays. MnDOT eventually awarded the contract to the same company, at a bid millions of dollars more than the original contract.
"The greatest sense of frustration I've had is when MnDOT decided to waylay that second bridge span and we actually ended up paying more than we would have," said Washington County Commissioner Myra Peterson, who made a new Wakota Bridge a top priority upon her election to the board in 1993.
It had become clear by the early 1990s to area elected officials like Peterson that the growing southeast metro needed an expanded Wakota Bridge and modernized Highway 61 to keep up with increased vehicle traffic.
The bottleneck at the old bridge had worsened by the time construction began in 2002, the blue, steel bridge unable to handle 80,000 vehicles per day over the Mississippi River between Washington and Dakota counties.
Newport officials had expected construction to end by 2007. Instead, the project that modernized Highway 61 through the area, constructed the Glen Road overpass and by July will have constructed a brand-new river crossing, has dragged on almost a decade.
Newport's businesses have suffered during the dragged-out project, city officials have long said. Two gas stations have closed. Steve's Newport Drive-In, a roadside standby, was shuttered. And tensions over the project helped contribute to political unrest in the city that unseated three-fifths of Newport's city council in the 2008 elections.
"It has taken a toll on the businesses," Geraghty said. "The long delays of the completion of the bridge -- we didn't anticipate that."
Councilmember Pauline Schottmuller can't muster too much excitement over the looming Wakota completion. For her, it's a bit anti-climactic.
"The worst of it was really over for Newport when the highway portion was completed," she said last week.
Now, Geraghty, Schottmuller, Peterson and Newport City Administrator Brian Anderson all agree: With the bridge project almost behind the city, the hope is commercial redevelopment can begin in tax revenue-starved Newport.
The city and Washington County have begun turning their attention toward planning for a future commuter rail spot near the new bridge, with the hope that, too, will spur development. But in the midst of a poor economy, officials fear the payoff from a finally finished bridge could be a few years out.
Newport took a bigger hit than its neighbors who benefit from a new bridge, Geraghty said. The hope is, though, that growth will follow.
"I'm optimistic, but I think we have to be real with the economy the way it is," the mayor said. "That it may not happen for a year or two."