Near the top of Thompson Hill, northbound motorists on Interstate 35 see a magnificent view of Lake Superior, the St. Louis River Valley, Duluth and Superior below. But they most likely overlook the crumbling concrete barrier walls with rusty rebar showing through and the patched and re-patched road surface.
The roadway, about 43 years old, will soon be ripped up as major re-construction begins on a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 35 through Duluth. State Department of Transportation officials say they'll restrict traffic to just one lane each way, as the interstate snakes down the hill toward Lake Superior and well past Duluth's downtown.
The project is expected to cost $81 million, but a bid of $67 million was accepted. With road conditions so bad, the project can't wait, transportation officials say.
"You'll see pieces of concrete and then you'll see pieces of blacktop," said MnDOT spokesman John Bray. "It's basically cobbled together. It's far, far surpassed its lifetime right now."
The I-35 project, which will take three construction seasons, is so big it has its own Web site and a name.
"It's the Mega Project, 'cause this is going to be one mega job," Bray said.
That means a once-in-50 years headache is coming for motorists driving through Duluth -- just in time for the summer season.
"There's no way that you can put fluff on this," Bray said. "This is going to be a real bad deal for traffic jams, traffic snarls. We are expecting significant traffic slowdowns here."
There's no official detour. Trucks will be diverted away from the construction zone, but after that they're on their own. Local residents are urged to find ways around it.
MnDOT has been working more than a year with community groups and event organizers to minimize the affect of the project on the busy summer season.
The first big test might be the weekend of June 19. Grandma's Marathon draws up to 50,000 visitors, Publicity Director Bob Gustafson said. They typically start pouring in Friday afternoon, the day before the big race.
For runners and spectators, planning is key, Gustafson said.
"We're going to do everything we can to encourage people to come into town as early as possible on Friday morning, just to make sure that they get here and that they aren't stuck too much in a traffic delay, if at all," he said.
Race officials will post traffic information and alternate routes on the race Web and Facebook sites.
Grandma's isn't the only big draw. There's also a Fourth of July event. In mid-July, more than 30,000 people are expected to attend the Duluth Air show, with the U.S Air Force Thunderbirds and a World War II battle re-enactment. Signs will steer people to the airport away from the interstate. Capping off the summer will be the Bayfront Blues Festival in mid-August.
With so much riding on the summer season, the I-35 project worries downtown hotel owners, who fear their customers will be scared away. But others, especially in one of the city's lower income neighborhoods, hear opportunity knocking.
In the Lincoln Park neighborhood, which runs parallel to the freeway for almost 20 blocks, the Lincoln Park Business Group expects traffic to double on neighborhood streets. That could benefit furniture stores, tire dealers, gas stations and convenience stores.
"That's going to have a major impact on commerce for our community," said Heath Hickok, executive director of the business group. "You know, folks are still going to want to stop and grab something to eat on their way home. So, we really look at this as an opportunity, and you know, hopefully it won't have too much of a negative impact on the community."
The area long known as the west end has long scrambled for respect, so much so that residents and business people decided to begin calling it Lincoln Park a couple of years ago. Civic leaders hope traffic will draw attention to the area's new $16 million hockey and convention center.
The I-35 project will alter traffic this year from mid-May through November. Motorists should get used to it. Work resumes through the 2011 season with some final access ramp work in 2012.