Just nine miles remain on ‘Cross-Range Expressway’

This picture show Highway 169 passing through Calumet, Minnesota, highlighting the stretch of the so-called “Cross-Range Expressway” still served by a two-lane road. Engineering challenges, cost, and control of mining land has prevented any change for decades. (Wikipedia, CC)

I’ve told this story before, but my grandfather served on the Keewatin City Council in the 1960s. One of the most important pieces of city business at the time was largely out of his control. The state of Minnesota decided to rebuild Highway 169 as a four-lane highway, bypassing the city of Keewatin and many of its western Mesabi Iron Range neighbors.

Instead of motoring into the heart of Keewatin, through its vibrant city square, past the school and city hall, drivers would instead shoot by the back end of town. They would look down at a trailer park and the side of old company houses that no one ever decorated. The “other side of the tracks” was now the side of the tracks that most people would see. The city lacked the resources to fix it up pretty, and indeed they still haven’t.

The city council at the time was justifiably nervous about this. They couldn’t stop it, but the state nevertheless asked for their support. When the project was complete, the state said one could zip along the freeway from Virginia to Grand Rapids on what would be called the “Cross-Range Expressway.”

This sleek, modern highway would be the pinnacle of transportation infrastructure for the Iron Range. A region rough cut into the white pine forests just two generations ago would suddenly join the Age of the American Automobile, cheap gas powering big engines made with Mesabi iron ore.

Of course, they wouldn’t be able to finish all of it at once. The Keewatin and Nashwauk bypass was just the first stage. What do you say?

OK, said my grandfather and his fellow city councilors. So long as you follow up on the rest of it.

Twenty years later, long after my grandfather lost his seat on the council, my political consciousness grew from sitting on grandpa’s lap, listening to him curse at the fact that they never finished the highway. Twenty more years later, he showed me letters he wrote to various officials. We now mark 50 years in total since the original promise.

The state finished more parts. They four-laned Grand Rapids to Coleraine in the early ‘90s. Bovey was bypassed ten years ago. Last year the four-lane stretched from Coleraine to Scenic Highway 7, a project they’ll finish this year as soon as the ground thaws.

But from Pengilly to Taconite, about nine miles, drivers bottleneck onto the original two-lane Highway 169, known a century ago as the Babcock Memorial Highway. Motorists cross swamps and run parallel to BNSF’s railroad tracks.

This year the Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board declared that completing this nine-mile stretch would be its priority. Sally Sedgwick reported on the story for the Scenic Range News Forum and Business North.

The big catch, as you might expect, is funding and land access. The Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board is pursuing a different funding mechanism.

From the Sedgwick story:

Early this year, Itasca County and West Range communities applied for construction funds under a special pool of money created by the legislature and government in 2014 called Corridors of Commerce. The overall goals of the program are to increase highway capacity and efficiency and improve movement of freight and commerce.

For 2018, there is approximately $400 million available, split about evenly between the Metro and Greater Minnesota areas. Money comes primarily through the sale of trunk highway bonds.

It’s an unusual program; projects are put on the list entirely by citizens. Anyone could recommend projects to MnDOT by the application deadline of February. Each suggestion was evaluated and, if it met the eligibility requirements of the program, would be scored and ranked. With some exceptions, the projects will be funded starting with the highest score and continuing until the funds are used.

“It’s hard to get funding for a project statewide,” explained Leo Trunt, District 3 Itasca County commissioner and representative on the WMMPB. But if it’s true that a squeaky wheel gets attention, “we’re trying to squeak as hard as we can,” he said.

The other side of the story — land access — is why this story is coming from an arcane sounding organization like the Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board. One of the sticking points over the years has been the mineral rights for the land along the two-lane stretch of highway. In some places, the highway cuts right across or very near the iron formation. The feeholders for the land prefer profits to a highway.

But this renewed effort may one day yield results. If we’re lucky my grandfather might live to see it. More likely, I’ll be an old man in a driverless car watching the trees whiz by on the Cross-Range Expressway.


  1. Ross Erickson says

    I was told as a boy that this highway would be done on less than ten years. 50 years later, i’m
    still waiting. I’m 64. Probably not in my lifetime!

    • Yup…Then the DEM’s put these same folks in charge of our health care. No wonder we’re still waiting for the $2,500 promised to us and looking for the doctors we once had. You think we’d learn…

  2. Could use a passing lane near Marble and straightening east of Calumet. I think the demographics have changed so much that the four lane is no longer justified.

    • Maybe a “Plan B” is in order B. Regardless, based on their track record, skepticism is in order with whatever MnDOT tells us.

      Not helping the matter…to fund one of his failed projects, “MNLARS” (computer system for vehicle titles and license plates) budgeted to cost $93 million but now estimated at closer to $150 million, Dayton has tapped into the gas tax fund. Legislators have claimed that’s a misuse gas tax funds, which are primarily intended for highway improvements.

  3. Technically all of the roads and towns, except the north half of Chisholm, are on top of the iron formation.

  4. In the mid-1970’s, my dad owned a bait store in Nashwauk, right on the stretch of Highway 169 that ran thru the center of town, across the street from the SuperAmerica gas station. Before the bypass opened, the town would be flooded with cars as the mine shifts changed and drivers were heading to/from work. My siblings and I would often sit on our steps, overlooking Hwy-169, looking for people we knew, so we could wave at their cars passing by. Business was good then — many miners would stop for bait/tackle or beer, to do some fishing on the way home from work. Then the bypass opened, and miners no longer had to drive thru the center of town to get home. Business suffered, to the point where within 4-5 years (around 1980), the bait store closed.

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