A new route through the Iron Range is going up, fast.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has until the end of next year to divert Hwy. 53 between the towns of Eveleth and Virginia, away from the rich mineral deposits under the current roadway.
Meeting that deadline has meant building quickly and building tall — the new route calls for the construction of the highest bridge in Minnesota.
Planners were drawing up blueprints before the final route was officially selected. The state put in an order for 10 million pounds of U.S. steel from a foundry in Wisconsin before the environmental surveys were finished. By the second week of March, with snow still on the ground, the bridge footings were taking shape on the edge of the Rouchleau Pit, just east of Virginia.
“It’s the most challenging job and probably the most rewarding job that I and the whole team have worked on,” said Patrick Huston, MnDOT’s project manager for the Hwy. 53 relocation. “Everybody had the same jersey on.”
Half a century ago, Minnesota built a highway through the Range, across land it didn’t own, directly over an iron deposit. A few years ago, the mining company that owns the land announced that it needed access to the ore. The road would have to be moved, and Huston’s team would have to find a way to make that happen.
Nothing about the project has been easy. Every proposed route came with headaches — one route would have carried traffic through a working pit mine; another would have sent Iron Range commuters miles out of their way.
In 2014, MnDOT settled on the Rouchleau Pit route, knowing it would mean building a very tall bridge on very hard rock across a quarry that also serves as Virginia’s drinking water source. Crews have worked for months to drive the bridge pilings through discarded quarry rubble and some of the hardest rock on the planet.
Huston’s team is working not only to protect the water during the construction, but to ensure that runoff and road de-icing chemicals from the bridge do not taint the town’s water supply.
The state cut a deal with a local mining company in 1960 to lease rather than buy a stretch of land leading into Virginia. For five decades, the state got free use of the land under the highway while the property owners focused on iron deposits that were bigger and richer than the low-grade taconite under all that asphalt.
But the price of taconite went up, and so did the price tag to relocate the highway — $159 million just for the construction of the 3.2 miles of four-lane road and a 204-foot-tall bridge that will be slightly higher than the High Bridge in Duluth. The total cost of the project, from planning to completion in November 2017, is expected to top $220 million.
The relocation pushed ahead despite the fact that the mining company that requested the move, Cliffs Natural Resources, recently idled its operation. But the current steel slump that has shut down mining across the Range doesn’t change the state’s legal obligation to change the highway route, Huston said.
The highway isn’t the only thing shifting course. A stretch of the Mesabi Trail will be diverted to the new route, along with nearby utility lines. The soaring new bridge will carry snowmobiles and cyclists, too.
“I’m so proud to be part of the team” that is rerouting the highway, Huston said. Fast-tracking the project required MnDOT to divert resources from other projects and required the combined efforts of many state and federal agencies, consultants, planners and workers.
MnDOT expects the first Hwy. 53 traffic to start traveling the new route on Nov. 15, 2017.