Bonds

Billion-dollar grant for bridge linking Wisconsin, Minnesota

Plans to replace a decaying bridge between Wisconsin and Minnesota have advanced with the announcement of $1.05 billion in federal funding.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Nationally Significant Multimodal Freight and Highway Projects program, also known as INFRA, will help finance a replacement for the John A. Blatnik Bridge

A nearly 63-year-old span stretching over the Saint Louis River between Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota, the 7,975-foot bridge still handles roughly 33,000 vehicles daily. More than 265,000 trucks cross the bridge every year through Interstate 535 and US 53. But in recent years, the bridge has had a weight limit of 40 tons; it can no longer support overweight freight loads. 

“We’re excited to celebrate this award today and what it means for our state, our workforce and economy, and the quality of life in Northern Wisconsin,” Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, pictured in 2023, said in a statement.

Bloomberg News

Officials have said that if construction doesn’t begin on a replacement, the Blatnik Bridge, a key link between the two Lake Superior ports, may need to be shut down by 2030 for safety reasons.

Wisconsin and Minnesota have each committed $400 million toward the total cost of replacing the bridge, with some of that coming from bonds. Wisconsin’s 2023-25 biennial budget authorized $47.2 million in funding and $352.8 million in transportation fund-supported, general obligation bonding authority. Minnesota is committing $200 million from its capital highway improvement program and $200 million from trunk highway bonds authorized in the 2023 legislative session.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $1.8 billion. The 2022 federal omnibus spending bill also included $7.5 million for the bridge.

The federal grant was funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, often referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a $550 billion measure that authorizes $40 billion for the repair or replacement of bridges. While it’s been over two years since that law took effect, many issuers have spent that time on the sidelines waiting for rates and materials costs to come down. 

That’s about to change: Alison Premo Black, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s senior vice president, told The Bond Buyer that 38 states are likely to maintain or increase construction activity in 2024. And experts predict double-digit jumps in project starts for highways, bridges and public works projects this year.

Design work on the Blatnik Bridge replacement is slated to begin in 2024, and phased construction is likely to begin in 2025. The bridge will be closed for four to five years after that, according to the project timeline

Wisconsin Capital Finance Director Aaron Heintz said “it is the goal” for this federal grant — along with the $7.5 million from the omnibus and the $800 million total from both states — to cover all the costs of replacing the bridge. Without the grant, Heintz said, Wisconsin and Minnesota would have been left casting about for other federal funding sources to offset the costs of the project.

“Its impact on the project can’t be overstated,” Heintz said of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. “[The law] continues to make meaningful impacts on critical infrastructure improvement and replacement projects.”

State leaders welcomed the awarding of the grant, and said the team effort by both states had paid off.

Newly announced federal grant money will speed replacement of the aging John A. Blatnik Bridge linking Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconson.

Adobe Stock

In a statement Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers thanked Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, and his counterpart in Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz, for “championing this project to get this done for our states.” He also thanked federal officials who worked with officials in Wisconsin and Minnesota during the grant application process. Wisconsin’s other senator, Ron Johnson, a Republican, voted against the infrastructure bill.

“I look forward to our continued work together toward ensuring our infrastructure is built to meet the needs of a 21st-century workforce and economy,” Evers said.

Walz said in a statement that he, too, is grateful: “This investment will make it possible for Minnesota and Wisconsin to rebuild a critical connection between our states that will foster regional economic growth, strengthen our national supply chains, and improve the safety and reliability of our transportation network,” he said.

Fitch Ratings assigns Wisconsin a long-term issuer default rating of AA-plus. Moody’s Investors Service rates it Aa1. Kroll Bond Rating Agency rates Wisconsin GOs AAA, and S&P Global Ratings assigns the state a rating of AA-plus.

Minnesota has been triple-A rated by all the rating agencies since 2022.

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