Highway 53: Push for more funding

Local officials are asking the public to contact Range lawmakers and MnDOT to push for more funding, as a new snag in the Highway 53 relocation project has unfolded.

Minnesota Department of Transportation staffers acknowledged at a project update last week that they are limited to a $90 million budget for moving the highway by 2017 for mining.

The planned-for intersection of Highways 53 and 135 southeast of Virginia is raising concerns from local officials, for a number of safety hazards. Two more intersection options were offered by MnDOT, but unless some more funding is obtained, the options won’t be used, and that planned junction would be in place for decades, officials said.

Problems include:

• A stop sign is slated to be placed at the left turn lane from southbound Highway 53 for eastbound Highway 135 toward the East Range, under the existing plan.

• Heavy, large trucks hauling iron concentrate from Chisholm or the West Range east toward Mesabi Nugget near Aurora and Hoyt Lakes would be crossing two lanes of northbound Highway 53 traffic.

• There would be no westbound merge from Highway 135 onto southbound Highway 53.

• Suggestions to reroute traffic through Gilbert or Eveleth would increase safety risks in those towns, officials said.

• Elimination of the west 135 onto southbound 53 ramp in the proposed relocation, due to low traffic numbers, would become a problem when future mining projects on the East Range such as PolyMet start up.

The two new intersection options that came forward from MnDOT include:

• A “compressed diamond” 53-135 interchange, like the Highway 169-53 interchange by Hoover Road, or the Highways 37-53 junction south of Eveleth, would still leave no west 135-to-south 53 route.

• An eastbound 135 ramp from southbound 53 going under the two northbound 53 lanes, would have bridges.

The options will be included in the project’s draft environmental impact statement to be released this spring.

The highway relocation is money-driven, and dollar allocations “are all coming out of St. Paul,” said Virginia City Councilor Charles Baribeau.

Quad Cities and East Range mayors “have offered to help look for dollars down in St. Paul,” he said, adding that “they’re all concerned.”

Baribeau has been appointed by his council to represent the city in talks with MnDOT.

Relocation of the segment between the current Highway 53-135 interchange to the Second Avenue traffic loop was started in 2010 by the termination of an easement by United Taconite to mine ore under the segment. A new segment must be in place by May 2017.

MnDOT Highway 53 relocation project manager Roberta Dwyer said the two new options came forward after officials expressed concerns about the 53-135 intersection. The main plan on the table is to have a southbound 53-left turn lane and stop sign for eastbound 135, and for a westbound 135 to northbound 53 merge lane, both to be at grade.

However, “there is no funding in the project except for a current at-grade intersection,” she explained.

The project is running about three weeks behind its schedule as MnDOT staffers have been in contact with the Federal Highway Administration. Staffers also are meeting with trails groups, she added.

The intersection problem is not the first one the Highway 53 project has encountered. When a proposed westerly alternative along Highway 37 west to County Highway 7 up to Mountain Iron was proposed, businesses and officials rallied and pushed until the option was dropped. There are three build options still in play, none of which would be affected by the intersection.

Another intersection not far away along Highway 53 is at Hat Trick Avenue in Eveleth, which has had a lot of cross traffic and numerous accidents, including a fatal one a couple years ago.

Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum said he is concerned, as he already travels from the East Range to work in Mountain Iron daily. Another factor that planners need to consider is the summer crunch, when 30 percent more traffic is on the Range with vacationers and tourists, he said.

Gilbert Mayor Mike Skenzich said the left turn stop sign from south 53 onto east 135 being proposed “is ridiculous.”

The interchange needs an overpass, as was built in the 1960s. “We’re going backward, not forward on this,” Skenzich noted. “It’s all coming down to money.”

Either of the two new options proposed “would work for us,” he said. But, “they made it clear the one they’re going to propose is the stop sign.”

Everyone should contact Range legislators, MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and the League of Minnesota Cities to lobby or push for more funding, Skenzich said, adding that area city councils are working on resolutions opposing the stop-sign plan from MnDOT.

Eveleth Mayor Bob Vlaisavljevich said the current interchange and some traffic suggestions are “a little disturbing.” Some suggestions to use some Eveleth streets to route some of the iron ore trucks through will be opposed by the council, which would put restrictions on them, he added.

Hoyt Lakes Mayor Mark Skelton noted that “this is really important to Virginia and the East Range.” When LTV Mining shut down in Hoyt Lakes in 2001, now everyone on the East Range drives to the Quad Cities to go to work, he said.

As the new Highway 53 segment is meant to be permanent, “we’ve got one shot on this” with the 53-135 intersection, he said.

Skelton said he understands MnDOT’s funding predicament, and Range mayors have asked transportation staffers what they can do to help look for funding.

“What worries me,” Skelton said, “how many of our families are going to have to be hurt or killed before” the intersection is fixed.

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