Highway 53 plan may create ‘highest bridge in Minnesota’

An engineer's rendering of a possible U.S. Highway 53 bridge across the Rouchleau Mine pit in Virginia, Minn. Tests this summer will determine if the bridge is viable option for relocating the highway. (PHOTO: MNDOT)

An engineer’s rendering of a possible U.S. Highway 53 bridge across the Rouchleau Mine pit in Virginia, Minn. Ongoing tests will determine if what would be the “highest bridge in Minnesota” is a viable option for relocating the highway. (IMAGE: MNDOT)

Iron Range newsIron Rangers might have seen some barges floating out on the Rouchleau pit near Virginia, Minnesota this past week. Crews are drilling the rock formations beneath the deep, cold water pits to see if the craggy mine waste and rock below can sustain the weight of what would become “the highest bridge in Minnesota.”

In a John Myers story that ran in the Duluth News Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press this past weekend, we learn that the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s leading plan would call for a bridge that “would be 2,800 feet long and 325 feet tall from the mine floor to the top of the arch.”

That bridge would be just slightly taller than the John Blatnik (aka, “High”) Bridge that connects Duluth to Superior, Wisconsin, making the proposed new Range bridge the state’s tallest.

Those barges on the Rouchleau will determine whether this plan leaps from the drawing board to reality. If the terrain beneath the pit is too unstable, other plans could include a smaller bridge farther down the pit or a road built on fill along the edge of the pit. The deadline for all this is coming soon: 2017. Few believe the state will be able to hit that mark.

I wrote about the frustrating nature of this expensive Highway 53 project a couple weeks ago. You may recall that this whole project is necessary only because in the 1960s state officials agreed to move the highway at taxpayer expense upon the request of the holders of the mineral rights in the area of Highway 53. About the only good that could come of it would be a piece of compelling architecture that would speak to a new economic era on the Iron Range. The good news is that the state is finally planning for a permanent route that won’t require another relocation in the distant future; something leaders in the 1960s got dead wrong.

From the Myers story:

Meanwhile, as engineers test rock for routes, NRRI geologists also are helping MnDOT determine how much iron ore and other minerals may be under the new road routes. Whichever route is picked, MnDOT does not want to have to move the highway again in 50 or even 100 years because the ore underneath is needed.

“There’s going to be some ore encumbered no matter which way we go. But we want this (rerouting) to be permanent,” Huston said.

State officials say that money for the final route picked probably won’t be an issue, even if the final project is a budget-buster beyond the $90 million earmarked for the move. State lawmakers this year approved an extra $19.5 million from the state’s construction bonding bill to pay for the re-routing of utilities — sewer, water and electric lines — that follow Highway 53, costs that otherwise may have been covered by local residents’ property taxes. That money also will pay to move the Mesabi Trail recreation trail.

That seems like an awfully optimistic view of acquiring hundreds of millions of dollars, but there seems to be wide agreement that, at this point, the state just has to eat this vast cost. That is the story of the Iron Range: short-sighted leadership spanning generations. Perhaps this new generation figures out the folly of past practices. Let’s make the highest bridge in Minnesota, if it happens, a bridge to somewhere.


  1. Elanne Palcich says

    It would be a bridge to Target.

  2. I suppose the politicians who made the promise to move the road 50 years ago didn’t really grasp just how fast time flies. Just like I can’t grasp that soon I’ll be signing up for Medicare.

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