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State budget includes $400M boost for project to replace major bridge connecting Superior and Duluth

Elected leaders tout $400M that will go toward rebuilding the Blatnik Bridge

Blatnik Bridge
The Blatnik Bridge first opened in 1961. After 60 years, the bridge is deteriorating and nearing the end of its useful life. Around 33,000 drivers use the bridge each day to travel between the two cities. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

An estimated $1.8 billion plan to replace a major bridge connecting Superior and Duluth will receive a $400 million boost under Wisconsin’s next two-year state budget.

Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled budget-writing committee included $352.8 million in transportation bonding and $47.2 million in funding to rebuild the Blatnik Bridge.

This December will mark 62 years since the bridge first opened, and it needs to be replaced due to its deteriorating condition. It has been under load restrictions due to age, rust and corrosion on its primary trusses. The bridge also poses a safety risk because its crash rates are 7 to 10 times higher than the statewide averages in Wisconsin and Minnesota respectively.

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Federal, state and local elected officials touted funding for the project at a press conference in Superior on Friday that was streamed live by WDIO-TV.

“This bridge is only one of two (major) connections between Duluth and Superior and tens of thousands of vehicles cross it daily, but decades of exposure to the elements have led to corrosion and damage,” Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said. “Without significant additional funding, the Blatnik Bridge will continue to decay and eventually have to be closed.”

Superior's mayor and Gov. Tony Evers
Superior Mayor Jim Paine and Gov. Tony Evers speak during a recent stop in Superior on June 20, 2023. 
Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Transportation officials have warned the bridge could shut down by 2030 if it’s not replaced. Regular inspections and maintenance are conducted to ensure it remains safe for the more than 33,000 drivers who cross the bridge each day. The bridge’s condition limits vehicle weight to about 60 percent of a standard highway bridge, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

“Each year, the bridge carries nearly 265,000 trucks that transport nearly $4 billion worth of goods,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said. “The bridge is a vital connection for the Great Lakes’ largest port, helping ensure that made in Wisconsin products get to market and (support) thousands of jobs.”

Baldwin, who is running for reelection, highlighted her support for the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law. Last year, President Joe Biden visited the Blatnik Bridge in Superior to promote the nation’s largest investment in decades to repair aging bridges and roads. The White House has said the landmark law will help repair and replace more than 3,700 bridges and more than 69,000 miles of roads. Baldwin said she also helped secure $7.5 million under this year’s federal budget for the Blatnik Bridge project.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin speaks to reporters following Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., joined at left by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks to reporters following Senate passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Superior Mayor Jim Paine said state and federal leaders understand the need to modernize aging infrastructure.

“This is a 20th century bridge,” Paine said. “They have been outstanding supporters of building a 21st century bridge — a bridge that serves all of the people.”

Superior and northern Wisconsin leaders have been urging the state to fully reconstruct the bridge with a bike and pedestrian path. A 2021 survey of 323 people found the vast majority would use it to walk, run and bike between the cities several times a year.

The Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Transportation are still weighing two options for the project. One alignment would reconstruct the bridge along its existing route, and the other would run slightly westward across the St. Louis River that separates Duluth and Superior. Transportation officials will gather public input on a preferred alternative sometime this fall.

Wisconsin funding for the project passed the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance as part of the state’s transportation budget. Sen. Romaine Quinn, R-Cameron, cited the money as part of several budget motions he authored that direct funding to northern Wisconsin. Rep. Angie Sapik, R-Lake Nebagamon, said in a statement \the funding “will ensure that the bridge is reconstructed with the latest technologies, materials and designs to improve safety and longevity.”

Rep. Angie Sapik
Rep. Angie Sapik, R-Lake Nebagamon, speaks on her phone during a stop in Superior on June 20, 2023.
Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Transportation officials now hope to begin construction in 2027, but it could begin in 2026 if funding becomes available. Wisconsin and Minnesota sought $889.5 million in federal funding under the bipartisan infrastructure law to help pay for the project, but it wasn’t funded in the first round of grants. However, the states are continuing to seek financial support through the Bridge Investment Program, according to Wisconsin Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson.

“Securing the federal funding for this project will not only enhance reliability for local residents and businesses, but it will spur regional economic growth and modernize the area to benefit all modes of transportation,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the bridge carries billions of dollars worth of goods from 42 states and nine Canadian provinces that support more than 8,200 jobs in the region.