County shows off plan for new Rice Street bridge at I-694

Ramsey County is asking the state for $20.5 million to replace the Rice Street bridge at Interstate 694, which was built in 1958. (courtesy of Minnesota Department of Transportation)

If funding is secured, construction would begin in 2018

As work begins to widen the Interstate 694 corridor through Shoreview, Ramsey County is visiting cities on the work’s eastern edge to shore up support for designs of a new Rice Street bridge over the interstate.

The county presented plans for the bridge at the April 13 Little Canada City Council meeting. 

During peak traffic hours, traffic exiting I-694 to Rice Street can frequently back up onto the freeway because of the bridge’s low capacity and traffic signals nearby on Rice to the north and south.

“[It’s] an area that could use a little bit of help when it comes to traffic mobility through the cities of Little Canada, Shoreview and Vadnais Heights,” said Beth Engum, the Ramsey County project manager who presented plans to the council.

Engum explained a bridge replacement has been on the radars of both the county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation for more than a decade. 

However, larger scale work, such as “Unweave the Weave” and the current “Enhance 694” widening project “basically pushed out” the Rice bridge rebuild, she said.


Funding plans


“At the county and now with the cities we’ve decided now is the time to try to get funding,” Engum said, adding that the county is currently seeking $20.5 million from the current Legislature for both the design and construction of the project.

The design Engum showed the council retained the shape of the current interchange, though it would replace the current signalized intersections on and near the bridge with roundabouts, or traffic circles

While there are no roundabouts currently in the Ramsey County road system, the county is building some at the reworked interchange at County Road H and Interstate 35W.

Engum said the final word on funding from the Legislature will come near the end of May. 

If that funding comes through, construction on the new bridge could come on the heels of the completion of the “Upgrade 694” project, and begin in spring 2018.

If state funding can’t be found, Engum said the county has a “Plan B” option, which would be to seek federal funding, though the alternative plan would push the project timeline back by years.


Why roundabouts?


The county chooses design options on a project-by-project basis, Engum said, and roundabouts were the best fit for a new Rice Street bridge.

“[Roundabouts provide] increased safety for vehicles and pedestrians due to a reduction in conflict points,” compared to standard intersections, Engum said.

Traffic circles can reduce accidents at an intersection by 39 percent, she said, and decrease fatal accidents by 89 percent, because cars are forced to slow down to deal with the inherent turns of the roundabout. 

Engum did concede that fender-benders can increase as people become accustomed to roundabouts, something that could be headed off by better explaining the traffic circles to the public

Engum also noted that roundabouts can reduce backups and that the design for the Rice Street bridge is more narrow than it would be for a signalized intersection, reducing cost.

Council member Tom Fischer was skeptical.

“I’m a little concerned about theory becoming a reality, given the [traffic] volume,” he said.

“There’s probably 21 hours a day where this will work like a dream; I’m very concerned about those others where people are trying to get to work or get home,” he added.

Engum said roundabouts worked best, modeled 30 years into the future with increasing traffic — “this design rises to the top.”


A long time coming


Though getting final municipal consent from cities is a bit of a ways off, Engum said after the meeting that objections to the design plan aren’t likely to be an obstacle.

“We are collaborating with the cities and the cities are all very interested with making this project happen,” she said. Engum showed the bridge plans to the Vadnais Heights City Council April 20 and is scheduled to meet with the Shoreview City Council during a work session May 9.

Many of the parties involved are familiar with the issue at hand: Late last year, the three cities and the county were in discussions to put together more than $500,000 to fund the current designs, with aims to have them ready for the current push at the Legislature.

Earlier, in March 2015, the mayors of the three cities sent Gov. Mark Dayton a letter unsuccessfully urging him to include funding for a Rice Street bridge on his list of transportation funding priorities for last year.

Engum noted that in 2004, MnDOT said it would replace the bridge, and Little Canada city administrator Joel Hanson has said that requests for a new Rice Street bridge over I-694 go back as far as 1989.

The bridge in question was built in 1958, and while many say it has outlived its usefulness, according to MnDOT it is of historical significance, having been the first bridge in the state to be constructed using prestressed-concrete girders.


Mike Munzenrider can be reached at or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

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