Highway 53 bridge progress seen from the air

Drone footage of construction on the new Highway 53 bridge between Virginia and Eveleth, Minnesota. (Screenshot from "Above the Range" video)

Drone footage of construction on the new Highway 53 bridge between Virginia and Eveleth, Minnesota. (Screenshot from “Above the Range” video)

The Highway 53 bridge project between Eveleth and Virginia, Minnesota, continues to develop at a fast pace.

Sure, the mine that required the major state highway to be rerouted, United Taconite, is still idled. And yes, this project involves snaking a new road around a man-made mountain, constructing the state’s tallest bridge across a mine pit, and shelling out more than $200 million from the state coffers in the process.

Those are higher order problems. In terms of engineering, this thing is stunning. Construction is ahead of schedule.

Here is the short snippet of drone footage from “Above the Range,” a YouTube channel maintained by a gentleman who does an amazing job of using a camera drone to capture images of the highly unique Iron Range landscape:

I’ve been critical of the choice to spend $250 million on a project that could have been done much more affordably if made part of a comprehensive regional plan. I’ve warned of the fact that the Highway 53 bridge project will end up consuming the lion’s share of the Iron Range’s transportation dollars for the coming decade, all to get a road that does the same thing the current road does.

But by now there is no putting the Highway 53 bridge genie back in the bottle. We’ll get a very big, very impressive, very expensive bridge. It will be exciting to see it take shape, regardless of your opinions about planning and transportation spending.

This Highway 53 bridge now becomes one of the central components of the Iron Range’s identity. It will be important to use it to visually wow people who visit here and might consider moving here someday. In a column last month I argued for a region-wide art initiative that could involve commissioning an Iron Range flag that could be festooned upon this mighty trestle.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation maintains a Highway 53 project website that details progress each day. Of particular interest is a webcam that shows what’s happening on the bridge site every six hours.

Here’s the shot for today, April 14, 2016:

The Highway 53 bridge project as seen on Thursday, April 14, 2016. (MNDOT webcam)

The Highway 53 bridge project as seen on Thursday, April 14, 2016. (MNDOT webcam)

You can see an updated shot here.


  1. The State is simply honoring a contract they willing signed/agreed to. The “mine” didn’t require the State to do anything beyond honor the contract.

    It’s interesting Aaron how you spin this as a higher order “problem”…when it’s really an investment, in our future. Why oh why do you continue to so detest business investment.

  2. Gray Camp says

    Aaron – It seems like half of you is trying to embrace the bridge and the other half is still dwelling on the past and trying to change peoples minds about whether to build it. The readers of your blog already know your position on the bridge project. I struggle a bit to understand the benefit to presenting negativity about something that is more news than debate. If your main goals is to improve the Range, then you may want to consider upping your positivity! Just one readers opinion.

    • It’s hard to be 100% positive about something that will prevent worthy projects on the Range from being funded over the next 10 years. But it is a fine, fine bridge. What else can I say? If you want black and white go read the Mesabi Daily.

      • Gray Camp says

        I agree with everything you wrote. However the decision is in the past. Anybody who regularly reads you knows how you feel about the bridge. I don’t see what is gained by repeating the same negative commentary about something that is a part of our present and future. Do you want all your readers to be bitter about the bridge the rest of their lives?

        • It’s not my job to salve the cognitive dissonance of this project. We must accept it for what it is. Ideally we learn something about long term planning so that maybe we stop kicking the can two generations down the line. I am impressed with the bridge. I am not impressed with the financial implications or the fact that we continue to make short term decisions with long term consequences. Perhaps someday I’ll not mention my concerns. Today was not that day.

  3. Why would you assume Aaron, that building the bridge “will prevent worthy projects on the Range from being funded”?…over the next 10 years??

    What makes you say that? What do you know that your readers don’t? What “worthy” projects are you talking about that won’t be funded?

    • Because I know how state funding works. It’s negotiated between two parties, three leaders, and multiple regions. When my college got funding to consolidate campuses in 2001 it was with the understanding that we wouldn’t be updating the old classrooms in the F and D buildings (even though they were becoming obsolete). Why? Not because those weren’t worthy projects, but because in terms of state funding we had “got ours” for a certain amount of time. We’re going in for a bonding project this year some 15 years later. That’s how it goes.

      We’ve got an incomplete Highway 169 expressway …. expensive project … gonna wait a while now. As this 53 project goes over budget we’re going to rob from other funds and future bonding bills. That means something else loses out. I don’t think you really need this explained. You’re a smart guy.

  4. John Ramos says

    As a Minnesotan, I object to multi-hundred-million-dollar taxpayer-funded projects being built on a fast track with only one bidder. I guarantee you that somebody is smiling happily to themselves, knowing that no matter how high cost overruns on the project climb, the state will pay. That’s sort of building cost overruns right into the project. I object to that.

  5. My only thought on the bridge is that it’s the first large scale transportation project I’ve heard of that actually *increases* commute times.

  6. So Aaron, what you’re promoting is the State should NOT have honored its legal obligation to move the road. I’ll say one thing, that fits right in with other liberal realities…such as not enforcing existing immigration laws. It’s your right to go down that path but most Rangers don’t support that line of thinking.

    • Bob, I encourage you to review the half dozen times we’ve talked about this in the comments section of posts about the Highway 53 project. I’ll not repeat myself. Way to bring up an unrelated issue and throw a punch against liberals, though. Max troll points, as usual.

    • hardrockminer says

      Good one Ranger47! As a laid -off miner from United Taconite, I love the new bridge construction. The over 70 million spent on the Senate building, now that was a waste of money!

  7. John Ramos says

    Being grumpy about new bridge in Virginia, Minnesota = Not enforcing national immigration policy.

  8. Encouraging breaking the law ≠ grumpy.

  9. John Ramos says

    Please, oh please, show me a single example in this post of someone encouraging breaking the law. Exact quotes, please.

  10. Please oh please. So tell me John, Aaron states – “constructing the state’s tallest bridge across a mine pit, shelling out more than $200 million…creates higher order problems”. Does that not imply he doesn’t support it, is against doing it, therefore insinuating to break the law? Either that or he’s in favor of creating problems…and he’s not that foolish.

  11. John Ramos says

    Judge: You, sir, stand accused of saying that building a $200 million bridge will create higher order problems. How do you plead?

    Defendant (tearfully): Guilty, your honor.

    Judge: This kind of lawbreaking will not be tolerated. Take him away.

  12. Jury: We were mistaken judge, he is a fool. And don’t be lenient for he knows exactly what he’s doing.

  13. John Ramos says

    Court psychiatrist: I’m afraid that R47’s paranoia and insecurity are causing him to make some truly bizarre comments. I think it would be best to allow him to keep his tinfoil hat, as this seems to provide him a measure of comfort. We hope that his crossed eyes will straighten out of their own accord in the near future, but unfortunately there is nothing we can do to address the drooling and giggling.

  14. Here we go. Having lost the argument, John pulls out Alinsky Rule #5 “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational.

  15. Ok..so back to the gist of article, that is – “I’ve been critical of the choice to spend $250 million on a project that could have been done much more affordably if made part of a comprehensive regional plan”. That’s like having figs after Easter.

  16. John Ramos says

    Relatives: He used to be normal, until he figured out how to use a mouse. Now he just spends his days in the basement, giggling and singing Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” It’s sad.

    • Here we go…again. Having lost the argument, John pulls out Alinsky Rule #5 “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.” There is no defense. It’s irrational.

  17. John Ramos says

    Men in white coats: (haul R47 out of the basement, Skittles spilling from his mouth as he tries to sing Katie Perry’s “Firework.”)

  18. John Ramos says

    R47: [twerking with a black bear in the woods, sweat flying] I came in like a wrecking ball / I never hit so hard in love / All I wanted was to break your walls / All you ever did was wreck me / Yeah, you, you wreck me!

    • My of my John…you’re the manifestation of hope springs eternal. And proven once again, nothing can be gained by reasoning with an idiot.

  19. A lot of people in my age bracket have said that we are not going to cross over the Rouchleau pit on a bridge, especially in the wintertime. The little Mitchell Bridge between Hibbing and Chisholm has a history of icy conditions, even after it was redone. What is it going to be like to cross the tallest bridge in the state in bad weather conditions? We’ll take the back road to Eveleth, or curtail our trips.
    I have also heard that road salt needs to be prevented from falling into the pit, as the pit is the drinking water supply for Virginia. But I suppose that, if there is the technology to build the bridge, there must be the technology to plow correctly, and also the technology to keep the bridge from developing cracks when the mine is blasting. Even though our houses end up with cracks in the plaster and foundation. Bridges are made of durable steel, right?
    And there will be money in the MnDOT budget for bridge upkeep and repair, right? For the next 100 years–current life span for such a bridge.
    So everybody stop your complaining. Our northeast political force has this all under control. Right?
    And R47 must be revving up his vehicle right now….

  20. I’m with you Elanne, read my posts on this subject over the past few years. I was never in favor of the Super High Bridge. It was a poor choice, for the reasons you mention and others.

    I was a proponent of the least costly, most westerly route. Most were against that though, said it was too inexpensive, not grandiose enough… or something.

    I was never in favor of the State not honoring the contract though, as some were/are. We’ve got enough lawless stuff going on without adding this to the mix.

  21. By the way Elanne, thanks for getting us back on topic. I expect John will recover after a good nights sleep. At least I hope…and pray. Whew!

  22. We have several other big projects coming up in the next few years, assuming mining continues in some shape or form. The biggest will be when Hibtac continues to expand their pit to the east, wiping out Hwy 169 between Hibbing and Chisholm.

    This will require a major bypass that will probably come out far east of Chisholm, isolating the town and Ironworld in much the same way Bovey was bypassed. The obvious route is to continue straight at Mitchel Bridge and come out somewhere around Hwy 5 between Chisholm and Buhl. There will be hell to pay when this comes up. It’s not a major bridge but it’s many miles of new highway.

    I only hope that Utac stays running and actually does dig up the old road. I would hate to see the new bridge in Virginia become another bridge over nothing like so many smaller ones along Hwy 169.

    By the way, any town south of the iron formation is potentially threatened eventually. All it takes is a new generation of larger trucks and shovels to push those pit limits further south.

    There was a study sponsored by Jeno Palucci in the 60’s (NEMDA?) that recommended locating all the Range towns off the iron formation. They would be consolidated into three new population centers roughly corresponding to Hibbing, Virginia, and Grand Rapids as I remember it. Is this the regional planning you speak of? I’m not aware of any other efforts along those lines. This planning might have been a good project for the IRRRB if they were actually thinking ahead.

    • Thanks for reminding of this, B. It’s important to remember all the crossroads these mines are going to face very soon. HibTac really has nowhere to go if they don’t expand their footprint in the next few years. Chisholm is already virtually bypassed, but knocking out the freeway would kill a lot of stuff, including the McDonald’s, the hotel and the Discovery Center.

      I’m glad you brought up that old report. I wrote about it a few years ago; actually talked to one of the guys who worked on it. They had Keewatin and Nashwauk vacating to form a new town to the south. Parts of current towns would have been moved. They did indeed suggest three main population centers. They even had GR, Hibbing and Virginia as centers of elite high schools that would serve the region instead of the dozen or so we have now.

      I guess that’s what’s most frustrating to me about the Highway 53 project. A short-sighted decision was made in the 1960s out of expedience and the widespread belief at the time that there was no way these taconite plants could last long into the 21st Century. Now that we’re here to pay the bill for that lack of foresight, we are actually celebrating the original sin by repeating it. And all across the Range new development has paved over the iron formation, so that the costs of displacement will probably cause mines to close. Nashwauk is one prime example, though hardly alone. It’d all be OK if we were making arrangements to form alternative economic opportunities, but that’s been slow to materialize, too.

      I am left thinking that in 10-20 years we’ll have a couple big mines in the region, served by better trucks moving material longer distances. North Shore will be the model, not the exception. That is merely my guess, but it’s hard not to see something like that happening.

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