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Broken Duluth slip bridge plagues business owners, pedestrians

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Forum News Service

The pedestrian lift bridge that allows people to cross the Minnesota Slip between Canal Park and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center is on the fritz — again.

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Justin Steinbach, co-owner of the Vista Fleet, agrees the picturesque bridge is iconic, but it’s also problematic.

When a cable snapped and part of the bridge became temporarily stuck in a down position Saturday afternoon, it trapped one of Steinbach’s tour boats in the slip, and he was forced to cancel two sold-out voyages. About 90 disappointed would-be passengers received refunds instead of boarding passes that afternoon.

Repeated breakdowns of the machinery that raises and lowers the walkway have earned the structure a telling nickname in the local business community: “the little blue bridge from hell.”

Pedestrians using the lift bridge can cross in several dozen yards, but when the bridge is out of commission, people are forced to walk nearly a mile around the slip’s periphery.

“That mini lift bridge and the connection it provides is vital to the health of Canal Park businesses of all kinds, whether you operate a candy shop or a restaurant or a hotel,” said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma's Restaurant Co. “When it stops working, you can feel the immediate despair.”

Daniel Fanning, a communications officer for the city of Duluth, said the city administration is sympathetic to the concerns of local businesses.

In the short term, Fanning said city staff plans to make needed repairs to return the bridge to service in time for several events that promise to bring large crowds to Duluth’s waterfront, namely the Bob Dylan concert Tuesday at Bayfront Park and a fast-approaching tall ships festival.

“In the long term, we realize we have to explore other options and see what else is a possibility. That includes everything from replacing the bridge to doing a big-picture repair or even filling in the slip,”Fanning said. “At this point, the administration is reviewing and evaluating the situation because we realize we can’t let this continue to happen, year in and year out.”

Capt. John Stieben, owner of a charter service called Lake Superior Fishing, said three of his vessels also were stuck in the slip on Saturday.

“I had three sets of clients who came to town and stayed overnight to go fishing Saturday. But we couldn’t even get off the dock because of that bridge,” said Stieben, who figures he was out $1,500 as a result.

“If the city is going to have a bridge there, they need to make it work,” said Stieben, who pledged to seek reimbursement from the city for the business he lost Saturday.

Capt. Peter Dahl, owner of Happy Hooker Charters, was more fortunate Saturday. He was already out fishing the lake with clients when the bridge malfunctioned. His headaches began when he tried to return to his mooring only to find it inaccessible. Dahl had to let his clients off at another location and provide transportation so they could get back to their cars. Then, he had to find an alternative spot to tie up, finally landing at a dock on Park Point.

The poor reliability of the bridge has become such a concern that Dahl has considered relocating his charter service from Duluth to Superior, where he said his dock rental fees would be roughly half what they are now.

Fanning acknowledged that mechanical failures have been an ongoing issue with the bridge. For better or worse, Fanning said the bridge is one of a kind.

“Given its uniqueness and age, it’s fairly difficult and expensive to fix and maintain,” he said.

Fanning said staff had already scheduled maintenance to replace the cable that failed on the bridge Saturday. With parts already in hand, he said repairs will begin today in hopes of completing them before the Dylan concert on Tuesday. He said engineering staff have expressed confidence that once the repairs are made, the bridge can be returned to reliable service at least “for the foreseeable short-term future.”

Steinbach said the city has been responsive when problems have arisen with the footbridge.

“The issues we’ve had haven’t occurred because of neglect,” he said, noting that the city recently installed video monitors that allow the bridge operator to watch for any signs of cables twisting or binding.

But Steinbach questions whether the blue bridge is worth the ongoing effort and expense it requires.

“It’s kind of like driving a car with 125,000 miles on it that requires $300 to $400 in repairs every month. At a certain point, you have to ask: Is it worth it or is it time to look for a newer vehicle?” he said.

Daugherty, too, believes the bridge may be fundamentally flawed.

“As far back as I can remember, that bridge has always been very unreliable,” he said.

In fact, the $800,000 bridge broke down shortly after it opened in 1991.

Some of the bridge difficulties have occurred at particularly inopportune times, including one breakdown in 2011 that coincided with a maritime tall ship festival, a Reggae Festival and a dog show put on by the Duluth Kennel Club. The bridge also became inoperable during the 2006 Bayfront Blues Festival.

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