DULUTH — Relocation of Highway 53 between Eveleth and Virginia is back to the drawing board, with a westerly route now being considered again.
The delay may add up to a year for analysis and reconsideration, a Minnesota Department of Transportation news release said Friday.
The project has been already under a tight timeline to finish by May 2017. United Taconite has been extending its mining operations up near the highway, and notified MnDOT in 2011 of its intention to mine the land it owns under the highway. The segment to be relocated is about a mile long, from the interchange with Highway 135, past the Mineview in the Sky tourism information center to about the Second Avenue South traffic loop. MnDOT’s easement over the current segment, granted in 1960, has been terminated as a result and the highway route has to be relocated.
MnDOT has been conducting an environmental impact statement to determine the best route. Four options that were still being considered were narrowed by one in February by Cliffs Natural Resources:
• United Taconite owner Cliffs told MnDOT that a route through its active mining operations from about the Midway subdivision across the Auburn Pit to the existing highway at about 12th Avenue South would not work.
Now, two other routes Friday are being considered too expensive by MnDOT:
• A proposed easterly route on Highway 53 along Highway 135 that would cut west on a bridge across the Rouchleau Pit and then head southwestward toward the Second Avenue Highway 53 traffic loop, has now been “determined to have numerous serious issues,” including costs, MnDOT said.
• The existing Highway 53 option, keeping the current roadway open by the Mineview in the Sky, would probably involve paying for the value of the iron underneath the road that Cliffs owns, estimated at between $400 million and $700 million, officials have said.
• The “no build” option, which is basically the westerly route, would run from Highway 53 a few miles south of Eveleth, westward along Highway 37 for several miles, then would run northward on County Highway 7 in Mountain Iron to Highway 169 and then to the existing Highway 53 route, where 169 and 53 start to run north together. Exact alignments would still need to be determined on such a route, if that is chosen.
“Options to be considered on all possible routes include a ‘Super Two’ design. A ‘Super Two’ roadway has wider lanes and shoulders, better sight lines and includes safer opportunities for passing than a standard two-lane highway design,” the MnDOT news release said.
The westerly route had been eliminated during the early part of the process, which started with 10 route options and narrowed those down to four by last fall. Members of the project advisory committee, which includes business leaders and city and other officials in the Quad Cities, indicated then that the westerly route was not a good choice. A meeting with the project advisory committee is in the works for mid-April.
No representatives with any of the retail stores and mall along Highway 53 by 12th Avenue South, which would be affected the westerly route, had contacted MnDOT by Friday afternoon on the pending changes, relocation project manager Roberta Dwyer said.
“As part of the EIS process, we do need an alternative to compare,” she said, adding that “the westerly option will need to be added in rescoping.” But she voiced concern about the westerly highway route, as it would take away from interconnectivity between the Quad City communities.
The easterly route would involve a bridge across the Rouchleau Pit that would be 1,350 feet long, with support towers that would be 225 feet high, and would be the highest bridge structure in Minnesota. The bridge cost “has gone upwards, toward $60 million,” she explained.
“Cost is a factor,” Dwyer said of MnDOT’s planning. “There are constrained resources.”
More information is available at mndot.gov/d1/projects.