Replacement Blatnik Bridge plans safety measures in case of future ship collision

a group of people stand in front of a bridge
President Joe Biden visits the John A. Blatnik Memorial Bridge in Superior, Wis., on Jan. 25. Biden announced some $5 billion in federal funds to upgrade the bridge and other infrastructure projects nationwide.
Saul Loeb | AFP via Getty Images

As authorities in Maryland respond to the collapse of a major freeway bridge that was struck by a cargo ship, transportation officials in Minnesota say guarding against a similar scenario is part of the planning for the replacement of the Blatnik Bridge linking Duluth and Superior, Wis.

At nearly 8,000 feet, the Blatnik is the second longest bridge in Minnesota, carrying I-535 over St. Louis Bay, the headwaters of Lake Superior.

More than 30,000 vehicles travel across the bridge every day, and giant ships up to 1,000 feet long pass underneath it, bound for docks in the bay to load with iron ore, grain and other cargoes, and departing under the bridge with full loads, bound for the lower Great Lakes or the Atlantic Ocean.

Like the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, freighters traveling under the Blatnik pass between giant pillars that hold the bridge high above the water.

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Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say they have “comprehensive emergency plans” in place should the Blatnik or any of the other 53 bridges in Minnesota that cross over navigable waters sustain a hit from a ship or a barge and require rescue operations.

“For bridges over bodies of water in Minnesota, we put safety measures in place to both prevent any direct hit to the bridge and to mitigate any risk to the structure through our design should it sustain a collision,” the agency said in a statement.

MnDOT says it has offered support and assistance to transportation officials in Maryland and plans to light the 35W bridge in Minneapolis Tuesday night the colors of the Maryland state flag.

MnDOT and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation are currently planning a replacement for the Blatnik Bridge, which was built in 1961. The Biden administration recently announced $1 billion in funding for the project; Minnesota and Wisconsin are each contributing $400 million.

State officials say that increasing safety on the bridge to further mitigate the risk of a ship collision “will be a core component of Blatnik design work.” Once a final design is selected, construction could begin as early as next year.

In the last 20 years, MnDOT said it is aware of two other incidents where water vessels collided with bridges.

About 15 years ago a barge struck the Lexington Bridge that carries Interstate 35E over the Mississippi River, causing minor damage.

In 2018, a barge struck a pier on the new Winona bridge over the Mississippi River, causing the need for concrete repairs.