How Will We Cross the Mississippi River in 2040?

Something interesting is happening where the nation’s longest interstate highway meets the country’s largest river.

An unprecedented dialogue among neighboring DOTs has begun that asks,"How will we cross the Mississippi River in the future?" As a transportation planner, I am fascinated to see where the dialogue leads. But it all started in 2011, when the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) re-envisioned the design for the I-90 Dresbach Bridge over the Mississippi River.

One border, two DOTs, three bridges

Built in 1967, the Dresbach Bridge is actually one of three total bridges that drivers along I-90 must cross to get over the Mississippi River between La Crescent, Minnesota, and La Crosse, Wisconsin. By 2011, this bridge needed to be replaced and, naturally, MnDOT had planned for and was designing a replacement.

Dresbach Bridge rendering
The Dresbach Bridge is one of three bridges that drivers pass over when crossing the Mississippi River.

At about the same time, a feasibility study uncovered a challenge. Residents and stakeholders on both sides of the river, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, had a request. They wanted multimodal accommodations on the bridge because they didn’t want to preclude future multimodal options and limit travel across the Dresbach Bridge to automobiles for years to come.

Why was this a challenge? Simple. A path on only one bridge would dead end in the middle of the Mississippi River.

MnDOT didn’t include bike accommodations in the original bridge design because neither the Round Lake Bridge nor the Black River Bridge, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), currently have biking accommodations. MnDOT wasn’t going build an interstate bike path that stopped in the middle of the river.

Taking a cue from Mother Nature

Knowing that including bike accommodations along I-90 across the Mississippi River would require significant proactive coordination with WisDOT and numerous environmental agencies, MnDOT reached out, asking, “If the Dresbach Bridge design includes bike accommodations, could WisDOT consider adding bike accommodations to the Round Lake and Black River bridges, when it comes time to replace them?”

WisDOT was open to a discussion as well as long-term planning, with the caveat that they couldn’t make promises regarding bridge design and construction that was decades away. In response, MnDOT produced a versatile redesign option that solved short-term challenges and leaves the door open to any long-term bike accommodations or other trail needs in the area.

Here’s where we take our cue from Mother Nature: The Dresbach Bridge redesign features a “marsupial hanger” which can be added to the bridge at any point in the future. The marsupial hanger would hang off the side or underneath the bridge, much like mammals in the marsupial class (think kangaroos and possums) that have a pouch that hangs off their abdomen.

Now that the Dresbach Bridge is outfitted for potential future trail accommodations, both states have some flexibility. WisDOT will have the option to extend paths across the Mississippi River when it comes time to replace the Round Lake and Black River bridges.

But now what? Where do we go from here? That’s what the La Crosse Area Planning Committee asked, understanding a concerted long-term planning effort is still necessary to deliver a bike connection along I-90 across the Mississippi River. 

stake holder meeting
Stakeholders “muddling through.”

Birds, planes and other stakeholders

Driving over the Dresbach Bridge you might pass beneath airplanes, bald eagles, egrets. You may pass over barges, endangered fish and other wildlife. You pass through two cities, two counties and two states. Which is to say there is more at stake in the area than a single bridge.

Overall, there are 18 different stakeholder groups involved at local, county, state and federal levels, including a regional airport and a national wildlife refuge. Knowing that there were many stakeholders that needed to coordinate and provide input on future plans for bike accommodations crossing the Mississippi River, the La Crosse Area Planning Committee hired SEH to facilitate discussions.

How do 18 stakeholders, each with diverse goals, get on the same page? They “muddle through.”

The science of “muddling through”

With a very short time frame to begin discussions (two months) among many important voices, fellow planner Nate Day, AICP, and I turned to planning methods promoted by a longtime University of Wisconsin-Madison Urban and Regional Planning professor, the late Jerry Kaufman, who touted a planning method dubbed “muddling through” — an iterative, pluralistic planning model that focuses on slow and gradual evolution, not revolution.

All in all, there were two meetings: one that looked into the past and up to the present, and a second meeting that looked forward. The first took stock of past planning and coordination efforts. It also examined important environmental impacts that would need to be resolved prior to implementing any bicycle accommodations. The second meeting looked toward the future. It focused on future timelines, funding options, planning efforts and coordination efforts.

For these meetings, muddling through meant having a series of open, honest discussions with direct feedback. It was more about the journey, less about the destination. It was about taking inventory of the past, looking ahead, and beginning a conversation.

How did the discussions end? The short answer is they haven’t, and won’t for some time.

How will we cross the Mississippi River in 2040?

Will travelers be biking, walking and driving between La Crosse, Wisconsin, and La Crescent, Minnesota, in the future? Time will tell. But this historic dialogue among neighboring DOTs stands in the face of another big question.

Currently only 18 states allow bicycles on interstate highways and only 13 of them have interstate bridges. Still fewer of these bridges cross state borders. As bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure options become more requested by the public, and as multimodal transportation offerings become the standard, how will state DOTs and area stakeholders work together to make these decisions?

Started by stakeholder’s desire to include bike accommodations on a new bridge design, driven by multiple federal, state, county and local agencies, and steered by a two months of facilitated planning, the future of the Mississippi River crossing has much to be decided. Wherever the dialogue goes from here, both MnDOT and WisDOT can be proud for beginning a discussion that serves as a model for DOTs across the country.

About the Author

Darren Fortney

Darren Fortney, AICP, is a Senior Transportation Planner who has led countless successful land use/transportation planning studies — and with nearly every WisDOT district in Wisconsin. His projects consistently provide for proactive and meaningful public input, educational components and strategies, a high degree of inter-governmental cooperation and collaboration, development of local project ownership and implementation, and successful land use/ transportation integration and balance. Contact Darren

Better Projects 101: Practical Tips

Want a better project? Download our free eBook filled with tips on hiring a consultant, stakeholder engagement, project delivery, project management and more.