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Roundabout construction to begin

One of the signs of spring: road construction. This orange sign alerts motorists to the impending roundabout construction due to start soon in Cloquet. The sign is in front of the traffic lights by Walmart on Highway 33 southbound. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal

A controversial road project in Cloquet prepares to begin in a few weeks. The proposed Highway 33 and Interstate 35 roundabout caused many upset residents to complain on a Facebook post in 2017, as did a public meeting.

Minnesota Department of Transportation spent several years studying the problem crossing area to find a solution. It looked at constructing an overpass, but it would've cost four times the amount as the roundabout and deadly T-bone accidents would still be a possibility.

There have been several serious crashes at the complex intersection over the years — two fatalities between 2005 and 2015, plus five very serious accidents — and much controversy about how to fix the problem.

Most of the worst accidents happen when drivers traveling south on Highway 33 attempt to turn left to head north onto Interstate 35. That left turn sends them across oncoming traffic, often moving fast after exiting Interstate 35 to head north on Highway 33.

During a Highway 33 corridor study and Access Management Plan, MnDOT had a state trooper observe the intersection in 2015 to see how many people ran the stop sign. He handed out 45 tickets in eight hours.

The study took into consideration the traffic data, including traffic count, which has shown slow but steady growth.

The study group consisted of representatives from MnDOT, the city of Cloquet, Carlton County law enforcement, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC).

According to the MnDOT website, the project will be divided into four stages to allow traffic to keep flowing as smoothly as possible during construction.

The first stage that begins in May is the construction of both northbound and southbound Highway 35 bypass. During that stage traffic can continue as usual.

The second stage will be the construction of the roundabout. During this stage, motorists will travel on the bypasses. The Frontage Road and the ramp from southbound Highway 33 to northbound I-35 will be closed to traffic at that time.

Stage three brings the construction of the ramp. At this point, motorists will travel on the newly-constructed roundabout. The Frontage Road and ramp from southbound Highway 33 to northbound I-35 will close to through traffic. All other movements will remain open to motorists.

The last stage of the project will be the construction of the free right.

"A free right is a dedicated lane/ramp for the vehicles coming on I-35 from Duluth and exiting onto Highway 33," said Todd Campbell, program delivery engineer for MnDot District 1. The ramp would be similar to the current exit going towards Cloquet, but motorists will no longer have the option to go across the highway to the frontage road. Instead they will need to use the roundabout after exiting from I-35 south.

Motorists will be able to travel on the roundabout and ramps while the free-right from southbound I-35 to northbound Highway 33 is constructed.

The project should be finished around October and cost about $2.21 million.

For more information or to view what the roundabout will look like, visit dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/i-35-cloquet.

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