MnDOT chooses new path for Highway 53 on the Iron Range

Vehicles head south on Hwy. 53 next to the mine.
Vehicles head south on Highway 53 adjacent to United Taconite's mine Thursday, July 17, 2014 near Virginia, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

Updated 5 p.m. | Posted 3 p.m.

State transportation officials on Tuesday unveiled a $220 million plan to build a grand gateway into the Iron Range town of Virginia featuring Minnesota's tallest bridge.

The bridge would run 1,100 feet across and 200 feet above the water filled Rouchleau Pit, an abandoned mine just outside Virginia.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation saw it as the best option to reroute a section of Highway 53 between Virginia and Eveleth to make way for an expanding iron ore operation. Local leaders were excited about the bridge's potential as a regional draw.

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"It's going to be a tremendous tourist attraction," said Charlie Baribeau, a Virginia city councilman. "You're going to see lakes down below. You're going to see an active mine. You'll see the city at night when you come in because you'll be high enough to see all that."

Scenarios include building a bridge over the pit.
The Rouchleau mine pit near Virginia, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

The need for a reroute was set in motion four years ago. When Highway 53 was first built in 1960, the state agreed to move it at taxpayers' expense if the mineral rights owners ever wanted to access the ore underneath. Mining company Cliffs Natural Resources first approached the state about moving the highway in 2010.

Finding a new route through a chain of operating and abandoned mining pits has been extremely difficult.

Last year the department suggested a route that would bypass Eveleth and avoid downtown Virginia. Local officials, including Baribeau, loudly objected, and MnDOT backed down. Officials began looking more closely at crossing Rouchleau Pit outside Virginia.

Iron Rangers are giving the new route a "thumbs up," said state Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia.

"What we've got is a solution that minimizes impacts to our local businesses outside of the mining industry" and works for the community, Metsa said.

Cliffs also backs the plan, saying in a statement it will allow for continued mining in the area.

That's not to say there aren't significant challenges.

The state has only allocated $90 million for a project now expected to cost $220 million. MnDOT commissioner Charlie Zelle, though, expressed confidence the state will find the money.

"I've been told transportation will be a major subject at the Legislature this coming session, and this will certainly be one of the issues that we'll have to consider when we look toward the next ten years and how we are able to fund these significant projects," he said.

Last year the Legislature allocated $19 million to move utilities along the existing highway. But MnDOT's Pat Huston says engineers are still discussing where to put them. The department has recommended not routing a natural gas line along the bridge given its height.

MnDOT is also weighing whether to route the Mesabi walking and biking trail along the bridge right of way, as well as a possible snowmobile and ATV trail, Huston said.

MnDOT also wants to make sure this is the last time the department has to go through this. That means the state will need to purchase the mineral rights under the preferred new route, which are owned by a private company, RGGS Minerals, and by Minnesota's School Trust Fund.

Huston said negotiations are underway and the projected price has been factored into the cost estimates.

If all goes as planned, MnDOT hopes to begin construction in the fall of 2015, and finish in the fall of 2017.