Hwy 53 funds fall victim to turbulent session

Aerial footage shows where the state's tallest bridge will span the Rochleau Pit in the $240 million Highway 53 relocation project on Northern Minnesota's Iron Range. (PHOTO: Screen shot from drone footage by Terry Hartikka)

Aerial footage shows where the state’s tallest bridge will span the Rochleau Pit in the $240 million Highway 53 relocation project on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. (PHOTO: Screen shot from drone footage by Terry Hartikka)

Among the many casualties of the rocky legislative session was primary funding for the relocation of Highway 53, the road that connects Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range to Duluth and the rest of the state. Now, local elected leaders and Department of Transportation officials say that unless Highway 53 funding is part of the anticipated special session this summer the project could see major cost overruns and logistical chaos.

Tom Scheck of Minnesota Public Radio wrote a good explanation of how this happened yesterday:

“And although I think there’s wide and bipartisan agreement that this is a critical project, we literally ran out of time,” said Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle.

The funding problem arose when legislative leaders took a multi-billion dollar, multi-year transportation bill off the table, said Zelle.

Instead they agreed to pass a status quo transportation funding bill. But they made that bill a Senate file, and then had to remove the Highway 53 project because legislation that borrows money has to originate in the House.

Now, Zelle is scrambling because steel orders and construction contracts have to be completed in a few weeks.

“The cost of not doing it would be very expensive, not just for the communities but for the cost of the project.”

Zelle said the construction delays alone could add $10 million to $15 million to the cost of the project. He said there could also be added costs if they have to extend the lease with Cliffs Natural Resources to use the existing highway.

This project has been a sort of albatross around the necks of state and Iron Range leaders from three generations. First, the short sighted 1960 agreement between the mines and state to move the highway has left today’s taxpayers with a $240 million project to replace a perfectly good road. Second, it’s left an economically stressed region with only one option: use all its political capital to secure the funding for this road, despite having many other useful ways in which it could spend the money. (Thirdly, without a hint of irony, they’re still building the new road on top of the iron formation to the delight of unborn transportation engineers).

I expect the road will be addressed in the upcoming special session, which we know will cover E-12 education funding after Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto on Wednesday, but it’s not remotely clear exactly how that will happen yet, or what other issues will jockey for consideration in the same session. We don’t even know where the special session will be held because the Capitol is closed for renovations.

To borrow a line from Bob Dylan about yet another Minnesota highway, perhaps “we’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun and have it on Highway 61.”


  1. Seemed intentionally left out due to the delete all amendment, judging by how Melin questioned Kelly. I don’t really know. I am easily distracted by Erhardt. Erhardt is great. Bill Hader’s Herb Welch and Erhardt are similar.

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