The first thing you notice when you stand on top of the new 1,100-foot long U.S. Highway 53 bridge on the Iron Range, scheduled to open this weekend, is that it's tall — really tall.
"We get a lot of feedback about this bridge being tall, and folks don't really want to go over it if they're afraid of heights," said Pat Huston, MnDOT engineer and project manager.
But at 50 miles per hour, which is the speed limit on the new bridge, Huston said, drivers won't have much time to be afraid. It will only take about 15 seconds to travel across.
The view is stunning. The aqua blue water of the Rouchleau Pit shimmers 200 feet below the bridge. On the horizon are red cliffs, hundreds of feet tall, that miners dug through decades ago to reach the ore. When they finished, the pit slowly filled in.
"Especially when we were pouring the bridge deck up there, you just catch yourself looking down, and looking out and looking at the scenery around, going, 'Jeez, this thing's up in the air,'" said operating engineer Chuck Kaufman of Eveleth, a member of the Local 49 union who worked on the project for nearly two years.
Local officials believe the new span can spark economic development and help tourism, not just by luring bridge-lovers to the area, but by providing a grand entryway into the city of Virginia.
"It really is an engineering marvel," said Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe, Jr.
But the reason this bridge was built at all, like many things on the Iron Range, has to do with mining and politics.
Back in 1960, Minnesota made a deal with U.S. Steel. The state signed a private easement agreement with the company to expand Highway 53 to four lanes between Eveleth and Virginia.
But U.S. Steel kept the mineral rights to the iron ore underneath the highway.
Per the agreement, if the ore was needed prior to 1987, U.S. Steel would move the highway at its cost. After 1987, it was the state's responsibility.
Seven years ago, Cliffs Natural Resources, which had taken over those mineral leases from U.S. Steel, told the state the time had come to move the highway. The mining company, which is now Cleveland Cliffs, wanted to expand its United Taconite mine to dig the ore underneath.
The problem was there just weren't that many places to move the highway without running into either an operating mine, or an abandoned one.
The state examined a bridge across the existing mine, but Cliffs strongly objected. MnDOT also considered routing the highway all the way around Virginia and Eveleth. But local officials said the loss of traffic would devastate businesses.
So MnDOT settled on a 3.2 mile reroute over the Rouchleau Pit, despite significant engineering challenges.
For example, to support the massive bridge, 30-inch steel piles are sunk 175 feet through rubble and some of the hardest rock in the world at the bottom of the pit.
Special equipment was installed that allows the bridge to expand and contract nine inches in extreme weather.
And sensors were installed to notify engineers of any slight movements in the bridge.
"We don't anticipate anything, but again we've never built a bridge across a mine pit next to an active mine," Huston said.
All that was completed in an accelerated timeline to meet the deadline the state agreed to with Cliffs. It finished a month ahead of schedule.
The project cost about $235 million to build. The federal government covered $30 million; the state picked up the rest.
And to ensure taxpayers don't have to pay to move the highway again, the state spent about $15 million to acquire surface and mineral rights underneath the new route.
"The important thing is this is a permanent relocation," said Huston. "The only way it will move is if someday it becomes economical for a mine operation to move it. They can buy the minerals, and they would have to pay to move the highway as well."
A popular paved bike path, the Mesabi Trail, will also cross the bridge, said Jim Makowsky, general manager of two hotels in the area.
"I think it's going to be a tourist attraction," he said. "You'll be able to bike over the bridge, you'll be able to drive your snowmobile across the bridge, where else in the country can you do that?"
Plans also call for eventually allowing ATV riders to cross the bridge on the trail.
But state taxpayers may not be entirely done paying for the new bridge.
The funding package included $13 million for Virginia to extend city utilities under the bridge to a community of about 330 homes on the other side of the mine pit. But the work ended up costing an additional $5.7 million.
Virginia took out a loan to cover the difference, but is asking the state to reimburse it, said Cuffe.
"The cost is way too high," he said. "We don't have $5.7 million. ... $6 million in reserves is all we have to run the city."
Now about the only thing left for the bridge is a name. The Iron Range Tourism Bureau solicited ideas, and had locals vote for their favorite. The winner? Taconite Sky Bridge, submitted by Patti Papin of Mountain Iron.
Ultimately, it will be up to state officials to name the bridge, said the bureau's director Beth Pierce.
"We have a people's choice winner," Pierce said. "Now, it's up to the powers that be to select the official name."
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