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A better bridge for the Paul Bunyan Trail: DNR upgrading Mississippi River crossing

A crew began work this week to update the bridge over the Mississippi River on the Paul Bunyan State Trail. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI—A Paul Bunyan Trail crossing over the Mississippi River is undergoing a facelift this summer, with a project to restore the bridge's deck and other features.

Located east of Lake Bemidji, adjacent to Lake Avenue Northeast, the 222 foot-long bridge is having its deck, railing and pieces of its substructure replaced. Additionally, the project, coming in at just more than $300,000 will also pave over the deck once the new pieces are in place.

According to David Schotzko, Parks and Trails area supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, state engineers first looked at the bridge's needs about five years ago.

"Back in 2013, they found that this one was starting to need some work and it was rated a bit lower," Schotzko said. "After that, we kept a closer eye on it, and two years ago, it was restricted to a 2,000-pound limit. So, we couldn't go across as much with our equipment and we were responding to quite a bit of cracks."

The bridge was last renovated in 1964 and Schotzko said the bridge is structurally sound. However, the deck and sub-beams were beginning to show their age.

"All of the work for the project is out of the water, but we've added tarps under the bridge to catch any sawdust or wood chip debris," Schotzko said. "Once the deck is done, we'll go over the top with a layer of tar. That allows for a better surface for rollerblading and biking. It also helps preserve the boards underneath."

The project is scheduled to be complete by Aug. 27, but Schotzko said recent conversations with construction crews have indicated it could be finished early. Until work is finished, the bridge will remain closed.

"We would have rather worked on the project during the fall when it's not as busy. But, the funding source mandated that it had to be used on the project right now," Schotzko said. "Unfortunately, there's no real safe reroute for the project. The only place to direct people is onto Lake Avenue, but I don't advocate that just for safety. With families, I think it's preferable right now to just turn around and come back."

Before this latest project, Schotzko said the DNR has replaced or rehabilitated seven other trail bridges in the last 10 years in the area. Following this project's completion, Schotzko said the agency will begin looking to improve assets on the Blue Ox Trail in the area.