COLUMN: On the move, on our dime

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, June 13, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

On the move, on our dime
By Aaron J. Brown

It would appear that another Iron Range highway must move to accommodate mining activity. It’s the 21st century but I can’t help wondering if war with the Spaniards won’t indeed become necessary in the near future! Don’t get me wrong, I’m hip to the needs of local iron mines. A cold winter of economic discontent boiled down our region’s situation to a fairly stark reality. If the mines aren’t running, we Iron Rangers aren’t ready to do anything else with our people or our economy. Not yet, hopefully not for long, but in case you missed it, we’re not ready.

Meantime, let’s move a highway, right? I’m talking about a recent item from the east Range about Cliffs Natural Resources marking up plans to move Highway 53 between Virginia and Eveleth. United Taconite is mining along the ore formation and the long expected collision course with the highway has now been specified. According to media outlets, engineers at the Minnesota Department of Transportation are considering one plan that would move the highway north and east of its current location, and another that would relocate the Highway 53 entrance to Virginia along the Bobby Aro Memorial Highway 7, a highway my bike and I spent some time with as a youth. Both plans could cost up to $100 million to implement within about seven years, but mining remains a billion dollar industry so, fellow Iron Rangers, we once again greet a choice that is not really a choice.

What some media outlets, particularly those of the televised variety, failed to acknowledge is that per an agreement reached in 1960(!), Cliffs, the current operator of United Taconite and other Range mines including nearby Hibbing Taconite, won’t have to pay for the relocation of the highway. Nice deal. That puts the potentially $100 million price tag on … some dudes. Oh wait, we are the some dudes in this equation. I don’t mean to belittle the necessity of mining between Eveleth and Virginia for the economic vitality of the region. But compare this to what Hibbing got out of the Oliver Mining Company back when the COMPANY paid to move the town around 1919. Hibbing got a world class high school, the most expensive in the nation at the time – utterly irreplaceable – and its current city hall, also a good deal classier than what’s seen in your average mining town. Today it’s for the people to move the highway and say thank you.

Well, I don’t blame the mining companies. It’s a great deal for them, and why wouldn’t they push for it? It’s a dog eat dog world out there and you better believe American mineral companies are wearing Milkbone underwear. (Norm from “Cheers,” thanks Norm). Yet again we see the long term political and economic effects of human desperation on the Iron Range. In 1960 the red ore mining was near dead and the taconite era was only beginning, not yet a sure thing. I can imagine some official whose name is lost to history frantically swiping a pen to paper allowing the easement that puts MnDOT or more likely the federal government on the hook for this highway move. And while we are paying to move a functional four-lane highway, might I remind you that the cost to upgrade the dangerous two-lane portion of Highway 169 in Itasca County from Nashwauk to Taconite to four lanes (completing the “Cross Range Expressway” promised by leaders before I was born) also runs about $100-$120 million. Which project do you think will get funded first?

What’s most frustrating is that my routine drives across the Iron Range you seldom see the boundless steps toward the future like you read about in a Carl Sandburg poem. Instead I’ve witnessed the repair and relocation of highways as they relate to mines and the demolition of decaying public buildings. Don’t even get me started on the spec buildings. And the taxpayers have paid for all of it, and have been thankful to do so.

It bears repeating, our problems on the Iron Range are increasingly connected to our complacent attitude toward obvious decline. We need fight and innovation, same as when Hibbing’s “fighting mayor” Vic Power sat at a table with the Oliver. A long time ago.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune and the author of “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” Read more at his blog


  1. Anonymous says

    Agreement on all fronts!

    I don’t know the particulars of how the IRR monies can be spent, but it sounds like a good source of funding to use for highway relocation for the benefit of Cliffs Natural Resources.

    We need diversification on the Iron Range badly. People forget that taconite is a finite resource. It will someday be all gone.

  2. Anonymous says

    Why haven’t Oberstar, Sertich, Tomassoni, Bakk,, rapped this into “Stimulus 17″…at either the federal or state level?

    If they did, it’d pass with flying colors and all the DFL’ers would be touting it as job saving. I’m dead serious.

    $100 million is chump change if shrouded in a Stimulus..

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