Watertown bridge debate takes more twists and turns

Carver' County's Bridge is expected to be replaced next summer.
Carver’ County’s Bridge is expected to be replaced next summer.

At one time barely even considered by the Watertown City Council as a realistic possibility, the idea of keeping the Highway 10 bridge open during construction next year appeared to be seconds away from approval during last week’s Nov. 12 meeting, but was eventually tabled once again for further discussion.

In a meeting that featured several twists and turns during a nearly hour-long discussion of the issue, there were motions on the table both to close the bridge during construction — as was originally expected — and later to keep the bridge open during construction, an option that only came to light in the last month.

The city council was first faced with the decision of either closing the bridge for construction or keeping it open throughout the duration of the project during its Oct. 22 meeting. At that time, the council appeared ready to choose complete closure of the bridge, because it was estimated that it would allow for completion of the bridge in 2 to 3 months less time and cost $300,000 to $400,000 less.

However, Councilor Steven Crowder suggested that the council wait to make a decision until the next meeting, when the council could be presented with more information regarding cost sharing and traffic patterns if the bridge were to stay open. It was during that meeting, on Nov. 12, that discussions took a drastic turn when County Engineer Lyndon Robjent informed the council that based on the Joint Powers Agreement previously reached by the County and the City, Carver County would pay 75 percent of the additional costs related to leaving the bridge open.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s really up to you if you want to stage it or you want to close it,” Robjent told the council on Nov. 12. “It’s by far preferable to close it from construction perspective, but from a traffic perspective, it makes it a lot more convenient to keep it open.”

Council member Mike Walters, who at that last meeting in October supported a closed-bridge construction process, quickly became a proponent of the option that would leave traffic open after hearing of the revised cost estimates. With the county paying 75 percent of the estimated $300,000 to $400,000 to keep the bridge open, the city would be on the hook for about $75,000 to $100,000.

Walters pointed out that an accelerated construction schedule — which would tear down the current bridge and have the new one completed in three months — would also come with additional costs of about $100,000, with the city paying 25 percent, or roughly $25,000. Thus, there is an estimated $50,000 to $75,000 difference in the city’s share between the two projects.

That money will be part of the overall bond for the project, meaning it will be spread over what will likely be a 10- to 20-year bond.

“When we threw out that figure of $300,000 to $400,000, it was asked that night how much the county would pay, and we weren’t sure,” Walters said in reference to the meeting in October. “If the option of keeping it open is $75,000 to $100,000, even if it’s going to take a little big longer, my vision has now been changed. I think that bridge is so important that we have to do everything we can to keep it open.”

However, Councilors Steve Washburn and Adam Pawelk continued to support the option that would tear down the current bridge as soon as the school year ends and hopefully have the new bridge completed in time for the next school year. The first motion on the table, made by Washburn and seconded by Pawelk, was to go with that option.

Both Washburn and Pawelk said that they believe the construction process will create such chaos and congestion that people will avoid the intersection anyway, thus making it a waste of money for the city to keep it open.

“The inconvenience of this option is just too great,” Washburn said. “We’ve all been to spots where there is road construction and things start to get backed up. The first thing we do is get hot under the collar and wish we were never there.”

Pawelk agreed, and cautioned that the option to keep traffic open would delay the completion of the project until November or possibly December, adding two to three months to the construction schedule, bringing school traffic into play starting in September, and possible snow in November or December.

“I’m still of the feeling that we need to get this done as quickly as possible,” Pawelk said. “People are going to start avoiding that area over time. Maybe at first you fight through it, but eventually you’ll avoid going through that area.”

However, Washburn’s motion to close the bridge in order to accelerate the schedule was voted down by Walters, Councilor Steve Crowder and Mayor Charlotte Johnson. The opposite motion was then quickly put on the table in favor of the option that would leave traffic open, and seemed to have the three votes it needed to pass.

However, Washburn made a motion to table the vote in order to give the school district a chance to weigh in on the possible change of plans. The only option previously discussed with the school district was the one where construction would take place entirely during the summer.

“I feel that if we’re opening this up, we sure should give an opportunity for our school board, and for the members of our school to be present and express some of their concerns, because this is not what has been discussed to date,” Washburn said. “If (keeping traffic open) is what we’re proposing and that’s what we’re advocating, and we’re saying we’re going to do construction on the bridge during the school year, which is not what has been communicated to the school up to this point, I feel it’s appropriate to give them the opportunity to understand the impact that this council is proposing to weigh.”

Mayor Johnson eventually agreed, voting with Washburn and Pawelk to table the vote until the next meeting, on Nov. 26, a decision that could ultimately leave the council deadlocked at 2-2 if nobody changes their mind. Crowder, who supported keeping the bridge open, was serving his final meeting last week before his resignation from the council as his family prepares to move to Waconia. Crowder will not be part of the vote on Nov. 26.

“By tabling it, you’re voting no,” Crowder pointed out to Johnson. “There’s no way it can pass unless you can get Steve or Adam to change their vote.”

To that, Johnson responded that “Maybe they will.”

The option to leave traffic open throughout the duration of the project would first leave traffic open on the current bridge during Phase 1 of construction, when the north half of the new bridge is being constructed. Once that half is finished, two lanes of traffic would shift onto the newly constructed portion, while the current bridge is torn down.

Robjent pointed out that although traffic would remain open, there would be additional challenges. For one thing, even while traffic remains open across the current bridge during Phase I, work would need to begin on the new roundabout at the intersection of Lewis Avenue and Territorial Street, which would have the potential to slow traffic down even more than it already is across the bridge during peak morning and afternoon hours.

“If it is open, there are going to be incredible traffic issues at that intersection,” Robjent said. “It’s not going to be like it is now. You’ll be able to get across, but there are going to be traffic issues. … There will be all kinds of traffic control devices directing traffic, but you will be able to get across. That’s what you have to weigh.”

Just how difficult it will be to get through the intersection — especially as that option compares to alternate routes — is at the center of the debate amongst the council. Pawelk and Washburn feel strongly that the intersection will be a mess.

“I believe it’s going to be extremely congested,” Washburn said. “Will you be able to get through? Yes. Will you want to do that during normal rush hour times? The answer is going to be no. You’re going to go a different route.”

The posted detour, though, will be an 11-mile route that takes motorists south on Highway 10, west on Highway 7 and then north on Highway 25 back into Watertown. Walters said he believes that detour is far more inconvenient than any inconvenience the construction might cause on the bridge.

“Some people might avoid it, but I know a lot of people won’t avoid it,” Walters said. “A lot of people will be happy the city left that option open. If you say it will be inconvenient because there is construction there, you have to weigh the inconvenience of that construction against driving down to Highway 7 and around. If people on (the east side) of the bridge have to drive all the way to Highway 7, they probably won’t.”

There is another option to get across the river on a Watertown Township road on the south side of town. However, that dirt road is not built for the type of traffic it would likely see in the event of Highway 10 bridge closure. Walters also said after the meeting that previous discussions between the county and city have suggested that route may eventually be closed to traffic if it starts seeing too much use, meaning motorists would be required to use the full detour. That, however, would be a matter for future discussions, which would likely include the Township.

Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce President Heather Jarvis, of Chiropractic Specialists of Watertown, said during the meeting that many business owners are very worried about the affect that a detour would have on their businesses. She said one business has even been looking for spaces in other towns because they are worried about how construction will affect business in Watertown.

“I would love to be able to keep traffic moving both ways,” Jarvis said. “Even though you’re going to have some congestion, the people that want to use it will find a different time of day.”

Councilor Crowder elaborated on that idea further in backing the proposal to keep traffic open. He pointed out that the nightmare scenarios involving traffic congestion really apply only to a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon. He pointed out that it  would seem like a waste to have the bridge closed during the rest of the day simply to avoid traffic congestion at those times.

“As a citizen, when I run to the store for certain things at 7 at night, that sure would be nice (to have the bridge open),” he said.

If the suddenly four-member City Council is unable to gain a majority one way or the other, and cannot provide a recommendation to the County, it seems that Carver County will simply move forward with the project as it sees best fit. Robjent made it pretty clear which direction that would be.

“If was up to me, to save money, we’d close it,” he said. “But there are a lot of inconveniences, so if the city wants to keep it open, we’ll do that.”


Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]