Western Minnesota highway that's sliding down hillside may be removed, rerouted

A road that is sliding down a hillside
The Minnesota Department of Transportation says the slope along Highway 67 at Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls, Minn. -- seen here in May 2020 -- is failing deep underground. That stretch of highway has been closed since April 2019.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

A stretch of state highway in western Minnesota that's been closed for nearly two years because it's sliding down a hillside may be abandoned and removed.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation says the slope along Highway 67 at Upper Sioux Agency State Park near Granite Falls is failing deep underground — and would require an estimated $30 million to repair.

"From an engineering standpoint, this is really a significant failure, one of the larger failures that we've seen in the state and a very, very complex solution if we were to rebuild the roadway in place," said MnDOT soils engineer and Highway 67 project manager Cody Brand.

Given the cost, and the "significant environmental, historical and cultural impacts" of making the extensive repairs, MnDOT is instead recommending rerouting Highway 67 onto existing state and county roads, to maintain the highway link between Granite Falls and Echo.

That would require transferring control of various stretches of highway between the state and Yellow Medicine County — a topic set to be discussed at Tuesday's County Board meeting. The West Central Tribune reported that some county officials, at a previous meeting, expressed concerns about such a transfer.

A view of the slope failure along State Highway 67
A view of the slope failure along State Highway 67 southeast of Granite Falls, Minn., on June 13, 2019.
Minnesota Department of Transportation

The Upper Sioux Community and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also are a part of discussions for the future of the highway, along with landowners along the route.

The failing stretch of highway has been closed since April 2019, when cracks started forming in the pavement. Since that time, parts of the highway have shifted several feet while MnDOT has monitored the hillside to investigate what's causing it to move.

"When you walk up through the failure, it looks like an earthquake. The road has failed to the point where vehicle travel is not possible. ... It's quite the sight," said Jeremy Losinski, who's a former park manager at Upper Sioux Agency and now is assistant Southern Region manager for the DNR's Division of Parks and Trails.

Erosion along the Yellow Medicine River at the base of the slope, as well as abnormally high rainfall, may be to blame for the slope failure. The highway has been on its current alignment along that hillside since the 1940s.

MnDOT's Brand said the slope is moving about 100 feet underground, so any repairs would involve large concrete columns to "pin" the highway to stable ground even deeper beneath the surface — along with stablizing the riverbank.

And on top of the failing slope, a nearby bridge over the Yellow Medicine River is being compressed by moving ground to the point where it needs to be removed or replaced.

The highway saw about 400 vehicles a day before the closure — which puts it in the bottom 5 percent for traffic volumes in that MnDOT district, Brand said. The low volume was a factor in recommending a reroute and removal, instead of repairs.

The proposed reroute would take Highway 67 south from Granite Falls along the existing State Highway 274 toward Wood Lake, then east along County Highway 2, back to meet the current Highway 67.

That would leave "stubs" of the highway on either side of the removed section. MnDOT wants to transfer the eastern segment to the county; it intends to keep the western segment to serve the Upper Sioux Community and the state park.

Effects on the park

The long-term closure of the highway has had a big effect on Upper Sioux Agency State Park, essentially severing it in two.

Most park facilities are on the west side of the closure, but a campground as well as a day use area along the Minnesota River are on the east side. What once was a quick drive from the park office to the campground now requires a 15- to 20-minute detour; Losinski noted that it’s illegal for anyone to drive on the closed section of the highway.

And if the Yellow Medicine River bridge that's being compressed by moving ground is removed, that will completely cut off the 34-site campground from all existing road access.

Losinski said the DNR and MnDOT are exploring options to maintain access to the campground. The discussion is still at a high level, but a solution could be a new park road around the failing hillside — a smaller road that wouldn't need to be built to the standards of a state highway.

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