Legislature approves funding for new Rice bridge over I-694


Area elected officials have long sought to replace the outdated Rice Street bridge over Interstate 694. With state funding now secured, work to rebuild the interchange could begin as soon as late 2018. Mike Munzenrider

Crossing the Rice Street bridge over Interstate 694 as a pedestrian is currently a tricky proposition. One of the goals of replacing the bridge and interchange is to make the area safer and more hospitable for pedestrians. Mike Munzenrider

The Rice Street and Interstate 694 interchange, which currently involves an outdated bridge and four intersections in quick succession, will be replaced with three spans and three roundabouts. courtesy of Ramsey County

Bridge targeted to be replaced for decades

 

Shoreview Mayor Sandy Martin said she can’t recall how many times she’s testified at the Legislature pleading for state funding to rebuild the obsolete Rice Street bridge over Interstate 694.

She said she does know concerns about the bridge predate her two decades as mayor — she’d used a letter dated 1989, stating the need for a new bridge, as a prop at the Capitol.

“This is a goal we’ve had for a long, long time,” she said, “and it’s very encouraging to know the funding is there now.”

Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bonding bill May 30 that pledged to Ramsey County $20.5 million to rebuild the Rice and I-694 interchange, bridge and all.

Couple that with $7 million in federal funds already set aside for the work, and the estimated $27.1 million project should be fully funded, said Beth Engum, the Ramsey County engineer who’s managing the project. 

Revised cost estimates for the work will come out later this year. The final design should be completed late in 2018, and construction could potentially begin around that same time, Engum said.

 

‘Last piece of the puzzle’

The interchange is the nexus point of three cities: Shoreview, Little Canada and Vadnais Heights.

Built in 1958, the two-lane bridge barely predates the construction of the interstate and is easily one of the oldest pieces of infrastructure in a corridor that’s been slowly made-over for more than a decade.

Ramsey County Commissioner Blake Huffman called the bridge the “last piece in the puzzle” when it comes to improving I-694 through the area.

The interchange is a choke point for Rice Street and the interstate, with traffic sometimes backed up the exits and on to the highway, while the bridge itself is a no-go for pedestrians, with barely a sidewalk crossing on either side of its narrow span.

Ramsey County’s chosen design includes three roundabouts, a traffic control design feature that was largely responsible for drawing more than 200 people to a Feb. 21 open house about the project.

Motorists all over have been skeptical about roundabouts, which are relatively rare in the metro, but Engum and Ramsey County, backed by traffic safety studies and other statistics, count the features as the most safe, efficient and cost-effective way to move cars through the area.

The county is also sticking with its roundabout-featuring design because the project’s federal funding depends on it, Engum said.

Engum explained the type of federal funding for which the county applied requires an explanation of the improvements being made to the infrastructure. 

“You get scored on congestion mitigation, safety improvements,” she said. “That’s how you get funding: if your project shows to make improvements.”

The federal government awarded the funding based on the design featuring roundabouts about a year ago, Engum said, and if the county were to alter the plans the application process would start over, and the county would risk losing the money.

 

Better for pedestrians

District 42B Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn counts the state funding for the bridge as one of the crowning achievements of her first year in the House.

“There aren’t many freshmen who can say the first bill they introduced was signed into law,” she said, noting that funding for the Rice/I-694 interchange was something now-retired Sen. Bev Scalze worked on for years.

Beyond the improvements to the interchange for cars, Becker-Finn said it will be a huge upgrade for pedestrians. Each side of the bridge has a sidewalk that’s only a couple feet wide.

She said the bridge essentially cuts the area in half for walkers, and is even worse for people who aren’t able-bodied, noting she saw a man in a wheelchair crossing the bridge on the roadway.

“It’s really not a workable way for anyone to safely travel by foot or bike,” Becker-Finn said of the bridge.

One of the stated goals of the project is to “prioritize the most vulnerable users to ensure that all users have equitable safety and mobility through the interchange.” Another goal of the work is to spur development.

A $40 million apartment complex is going in just north of the interstate on the Shoreview side of things, and Martin said other developers are keeping tabs on what’s happening there.

“There’s potential for development on all four corners of the freeway,” she said, “and we’ve seen not some stalling, but some waiting from different developers who want to wait and see what it was going to look like.”

 

Skin in the game

Engum said she’d recently met with businesses near the interchange to get them up to speed on the project. Otherwise, she said, the community engagement portion of the planning is largely done.

The next step for the project, Engum said, is for Ramsey County to seek the cities’ municipal consent. The county plans to go before the city councils this fall.

Though she pointed out she can’t speak for her colleagues on the Shoreview City Council, Martin said Shoreview was likely to give Ramsey County its support for the project.

“I don’t foresee any problems, at least based on the quick review we had of [the project],” she said.

Martin also pointed out Shoreview, Little Canada and Vadnais Heights all have skin in the game: each city committed $150,000 for design and planning of the project.

“There’s still a lot of details to work out,” she said, “but this will be really good for all three communities.”

 

- Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813.


 

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