Bunke Business: What’s keeping the bridge open worth to you?

Bunke Business By Matt Bunke Carver County News Community Editor
Bunke Business
By Matt Bunke
Carver County News Community Editor

On Tuesday, the Watertown City Council is set to make a huge decision, a decision that until a month ago, it didn’t even know it would need to make.

Nonetheless, the Council’s decision on how it wishes to construct the County Road 10 bridge across the river in a way that most effectively minimizes the negative impacts to the city will have a drastic effect on life in Watertown for anywhere from 3 to 6 months.

Until a month ago, it was widely believed there was only one option for reconstructing the bridge, which was to tear it down, build a new one, and then re-open it to traffic about three months later. All that, of course, is assuming Carver County ever gets the go-ahead from the Army Corps of Engineers. That permit process still isn’t a done deal, but the county and city are tentatively moving forward with plans to reconstruct the bridge next summer.

About a month ago, though, it was brought to the city’s attention that there was a second option on the table, one that would allow traffic to stay open across the river in downtown Watertown throughout the duration of the project. At first glance, the city knew little about the details, other than that this option would extend the duration of the project by 2 to 3 months -— likely into November — and would add an estimated $300,000 to $400,000 in costs. In comparison, the accelerated construction schedule that would tear down the bridge in June with the intention of having it open -before the start of the school year, would come with an estimated $100,000 in additional acceleration costs.

However, Carver County has since indicated that it will cover 75 percent of the additional costs related to either of the two options. That means, for the $100,000 acceleration option, the city would likely be on the hook for about $25,000, and for the more expensive staged-construction process that would allow traffic to stay open, the city would be on the hook for an estimated $75,000 to $100,000.

After a lengthy hour-long discussion at last week’s Council meeting that involved surprising twists and turns — and what may or may not have been a tricky political maneuver designed to push the issue to a later meeting and deadlock the council at 2-2 -— no decision was ultimately made. That decision is finally expected to be made at Tuesday’s upcoming meeting.

However, after the resignation of one council member who supported the “traffic open” model and was poised to be the third vote in favor of that option during his final meeting last week, a potential 2-2 deadlock could mean that neither option passes. Presumably, if the city council were unable to offer the county input on its preferred option — which is what this vote is intended to do — the County would proceed however it sees fit, which almost certainly would be with the cheaper teardown option.

And that — if things do in fact play out that way — would be a shame.

Back when the city believed it might be responsible for an additional $300,000 to $400,000 in order to keep traffic open, it really didn’t seem like a viable option. But for just $75,000 to $100,000, this just sounds like a no-brainer. Keep in mind the city would be paying an additional $25,000 even for the other option that would close the bridge.

In the interest of complete fairness, I should mention that I do not live in Watertown. I would not be paying the taxes that would fund this option; I would simply be benefitting from those who do. But let’s take a look at the math.

I’m certainly not a tax expert, and I’m not an expert on city bonding issues, so the following calculation is meant only as a rough guide intended to show the minimal expense we’re truly talking about. Using the higher end of the cost projections provided by the county, let’s say the “traffic open” option ($100,000) costs the city $75,000 more than the “bridge closed” option ($25,000). For the sake of easy math, let’s say the additional $75,000 is split evenly between roughly 1,500 properties in Watertown. Obviously, it doesn’t really work that way, but this type of over-simplified analysis is intended only to show that you’re looking at an increase in the range of $50 per household. And that’s not per year, either. That’s split up over the life of the bond, likely 10 to 20 years.

That’s obviously an incredibly rough estimate, but one that is further backed up by preliminary data run by city staff that indicates the tax impact on a $200,000 home would be about $3 per year over the life of a 20-year bond.

In addition to the cost element, Councilors Steve Washburn and Adam Pawelk, the two that oppose this option, cited general inconvenience in their opposition to keeping traffic open. They say — and County Public Works Director Lyndon Robjent confirmed — that although traffic could still cross the bridge during construction, it almost certainly would be far less efficient than at present. Even now, congestion during peak hours in the early morning and late afternoon can be a problem.

Washburn and Pawelk believe that the modified traffic patterns, especially during Phase 2, when two-lane traffic would move from the current bridge onto the first half of the new bridge, would be a total mess. Not only that, they say, but that mess would continue into the school year, while the other option is designed to have the bridge re-opened by that point.

They may be — and probably are -— correct in their assessment that traffic would be a mess during parts of the construction process. But to oppose keeping traffic open because of inconvenience — especially when the official alternative is a posted detour that would take motorists all the way back to Highway 7 — doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Even with increased traffic congestion, I can’t imagine it would take so long to get across the bridge that it would be less convenient than backtracking to Highway 7.

Out of curiosity, I made that trip last Friday morning. From the roundabout at County Road 20, it was an 11-mile trip to get to city hall that took 14 minutes and 18 seconds while driving the speed limit the entire way. Assuming you need to get back across the river, you’re looking at a total increase of 22 miles, or 28 minutes and 36 seconds. And that’s if you only make the trip once per day. If you have to make the round trip twice, you’re looking at spending an hour just trying to get back and forth across the river.

Furthermore, while traffic may be a congested mess at peak hours, during most of the day, you should be able to get across the river with relative ease. Want to run to the grocery store at 7 p.m.? Shouldn’t be a problem if the bridge is open, but that becomes quite a trip if the bridge is closed. Want to head to the pharmacy at 1 p.m.? No problem if the bridge is open, but quite a journey via Highway 7. Heck, a trip to Waconia would be about the same as a trip into downtown Watertown for anybody that lives on the east side of the river.

And remember that very approximate $50 cost over the life of the bond that you’d might pay in your taxes in order to keep the bridge open? What do you think you’ll pay in gas to make that additional 22 mile round trip each day, assuming you only have to do it once per day?

Assuming a national average of somewhere around 25 miles per gallon, that 22-mile round trip is going to cost you about $3 every time you make it, given the current price of gas. To make that round trip just once every weekday for the roughly 11 weeks that the bridge would be closed will end up costing you about $165. Suddenly $50 spread out over 20 years doesn’t sound so bad, especially with the time you’ll also save.

Of course, many will simply try to save most of those miles and gas costs by using the Watertown Township road to get across the river. However, I wouldn’t anticipate that dirt route being any more convenient than what is being proposed with the traffic-open model. I also wouldn’t bank on that Township route being open for long, because according to Walters, preliminary discussions with the county involved the possible closure of that road to through traffic if it starts seeing too much use during construction.

If the Watertown Township Road was guaranteed to stay open throughout the duration of the project, I’d be fine going with either option that’s one the table. But if there’s even a 10 percent chance that road might be closed, it would be foolish to close the current bridge.

In a letter to the editor this week, Councilor Washburn notes that it’s ironic that a city council member who voted against a second river crossing in 2012 — because he felt the city could get by without a bridge during construction — now favors keeping traffic open. However, it should be noted that the second bridge option would have cost the city several million dollars, while the option that that council member now favors would cost $100,000.

Washburn also notes that he can’t favor spending money on anything that doesn’t have a lasting benefit. However, people spend money on those types of things all the time. Have you ever bought a sports ticket or a concert ticket?

Or better yet, have you ever paid for airfare? Once your flight is over, you have nothing to show for the money you spent — except the convenience of having gotten somewhere the quickest and most efficient way possible.

I understand that it’s always difficult to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for anything that isn’t absolutely necessary. Maybe I’m dead wrong, but there must be a price people are willing to pay to keep the bridge open. The question is, how much?


Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]