VIRGINIA — There will be a bridge over the Rouchleau Pit in Virginia that will calm the troubled waters of the Highway 53 relocation issue.
And it will be a high and long $220 million structure that will prove to be a tourist draw and could open up land for a new industrial park in the city, said Virginia Mayor Louis Russo.
In addition, MnDOT intends to provide snowmobile and Mesabi Trail bicycle access in some form across the bridge, said Virginia Councilor Charlie Baribeau.
The highway relocation is needed because Cliffs Natural Resources exercised its mineral rights under the current roadway for an expansion of United Taconite sometime in 2017. Cliffs contacted MnDOT about the need to relocate Highway 53 in 2010.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation will now fast-track the project, including ordering steel in advance of a needed go-ahead on an Environmental Impact Statement.
Construction is expected to begin in late fall or early winter 2015, with officials hoping for completion of the bridge in early summer or fall of 2017.
MnDOT announced on Tuesday that the northernmost option for the highway relocation has been chosen. It will require a 200-foot-high, 1,150-foot-long suspension bridge over a narrow part of the Rouchleau Pit.
The roadway will then exit the bridge close to TRITECH Steel Fabrication’s expansion into the former Staver Foundry site and connect with Second Avenue before hooking up with the current highway just before the city’s softball fields and continue on its northerly route.
The route was picked over another option requiring a longer bridge of 2,900 feet above a wider section of the pit (E1a), which would have hooked up more directly with Second Avenue in Virginia.
And it was also preferred compared to a route over the Auburn Mine.
A westerly route that would have totally bypassed Virginia’s retail sector, including downtown, Target, Super One South, Menards and Thunderbird Mall was previously rejected.
MnDOT chose the E-2 route for the two best reasons — cost and construction.
“The E-2 alternative offers the most workable challenges and has the lowest cost of all the alternatives,” MnDOT said in a news release.
Local leaders praised the MnDOT decision.
“This is really good news for the city. There should be very little disruption to the city, other than there will be only one southern exit out of Midway, which will be at Bourgin Road,” Russo said.
“It’s a very good deal economically, for public service and our schools. And we will have international travel from Canada right through our front door,” he added.
The mayor said he does not anticipate any homes in Midway to be affected.
However, that may not be the case for at least one business — Second Avenue Auto Sales. “That business could be affected,” said Baribeau, who, along with Mayor-elect Larry Cuffe Jr., has regularly attended Highway 53 update sessions.
Baribeau also praised the decision, calling it “... the best possible outcome for Virginia.”
And he is pleased MnDOT is “taking a risk” to order the steel prior to final approval of an EIS, which likely won’t happen until next summer or fall.
The mayor said it will take 10 months or more to get the steel once the order is placed.
Minnesota’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 8th District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan lauded the MnDOT choice.
“This is excellent news,” Nolan said in a news release. “The E-2 route will allow MnDOT to finish the project by 2017 at the lowest cost. It makes sense for everyone who uses and depends on Highway 53 to travel and do business on the Iron Range,” Nolan said.
“Today’s announcement is great news for families and businesses on the Range. Moving forward with the E-2 route will help ensure this project is done in a timely manner and boost the region’s economy as businesses can now plan around the route,” Klobuchar said.