Officials on the Iron Range are meeting with Minnesota Department of Transportation officials to discuss how to relocate a major highway in the region.
A stretch of Highway 53 between Eveleth and Virginia must be moved to make way for an open pit taconite mine expansion. But a newly proposed option would completely bypass both towns, and that's raised the ire of many local business owners.
MnDOT's goal is to have the new highway in place by 2017.
More than 10,000 vehicles travel on Highway 53 through Eveleth every day, right past Ejay Dawson's Five Seasons Sports.
"Everyone that seems to go by looks over here to see what we have," Dawson said. "This highway out here has been an asset for me."
For four decades, Dawson has sold snowmobiles, ATVs and other motorized recreational equipment here. Now he's wrapping up a $1.5 million expansion and remodel. Dawson said he only undertook the project after MnDOT assured him the highway would remain in front of his dealership.
"They better darn follow their word. Whether it's more costly, that's the way it is. They spend millions and millions in the Twin Cities and nothing is ever thought about it," Dawson said. "Up here, because we have one project that's going to be expensive, all of a sudden it's way too expensive for MnDOT."
About a half a mile north of Dawson's dealership, Highway 53 runs past the United Taconite plant belonging to Cliffs Natural Resources. Cliffs now wants to mine the land underneath the highway, and it has the legal right to do so. Under a 1960 agreement, the state made a commitment to move the highway when the company was ready to mine under it.
The difficulty for MnDOt is there just are not many viable places to put the road. The region is pockmarked by operating mines and abandoned pits.
"We're really hemmed in here," said Roberta Dwyer, who is overseeing the relocation project for MnDoT.
"You have United Taconite; you have Arcelor Mittal to the north, and you have US Steel's MinnTac plant which is undergoing a major expansion now. If there's a great solution, we'd like to know that because we haven't been able to find that."
MnDOT had narrowed down the re-route to two options. The most direct would have spanned the current United Taconite mine pit. But Cliffs recently said that option was not feasible because of safety, environmental and other issues.
MnDOT is now weighing another option that would turn a direct three-mile trip north from Eveleth to Virginia into a 15-mile journey to the south, west, and then back north. Traffic headed north would bypass Eveleth entirely, but not Virginia.
What's referred to as the westerly option raises serious public safety concerns, especially for a 300-home neighborhood called Midway, according to Virginia City Council member Don Sipola. The subdivision lies between the two towns. The proposed reroute would make Midway effectively 20 miles from the area hospital in Virginia.
"A cardiac arrest in Midway might not get ambulance care for 20 minutes or longer, by taking the westerly route, and having to cross a number of railroad tracks where long mine trains often cross," Sipola said.
The city of Virginia instead prefers to route the highway over the abandoned Rouchleau Pit, which is several hundred feet deep and partially filled with water. That option would require a bridge with piers over 200 feet tall, Dwyer said.
"This would be unique to Minnesota. A very similar bridge would be something like the bridge at Hoover Dam," Dwyer said. "One of the advantages that people have seen is this would be a grand gateway into the city of Virginia."
But an expensive gateway, at that. That route could cost as much as $160 million, MnDOT reports. The state has set aside $60 million in bonding funds for the project so far, Dwyer said.
Back in Eveleth, Bill Aho's Super 8 Motel sits right next to Highway 53. Rerouting the highway away from Aho's property would devastate the business, he said.
"It would probably ruin me. I'll be very, very frank with you. That highway is very, very precious," Aho said.
Every summer the motel's parking lot fills with cars from Arkansas to Iowa, carrying tourists en route to the Boundary Waters or Canadian fishing trips. This highway is critical, Aho said, not only to his business, but the entire region.
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