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MnDOT summer to-do list? Nearly 30 projects throughout Northland

Local officials spoke on the Twin Ports Interchange work as well as upcoming Blatnik Bridge work and more.

Twin Ports Interchange Project.
Motorists northbound on Interstate 35 drive past part of the Twin Ports Interchange job site Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Spring thawing means summer construction, and the state of Minnesota announced 230 projects Thursday, including 29 in the Northland.

Among those are 21 new projects valued at $63 million. The eight projects of carryover work include the Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction project in Duluth.

To better understand what travelers, commuters and explorers to the Northland will encounter, the News Tribune attended Thursday’s news conference in the project office near the Twin Ports Interchange project site in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.

What’s next for the Twin Ports Interchange project in Duluth?

Designed to make the interchange with Interstate 35 safer and better suited to oversize freight traffic, the year-round project is nearly 18 months old.

After plenty of “underground work,” the fruits of the $343 million project are sprouting in the form of bridge piers and the first steel girders that will make up new bridges connecting I-35 with U.S. Highway 53 toward the mall area and Interstate 535 over the Blatnik Bridge.

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“It’s going to be real obvious in the next six months there will be a lot more above-ground work,” said Pat Huston, MnDOT major projects engineer.

Huston noted 26.5 miles of steel piling has been driven to support the bridges and walls in the project, comparing it to a marathon’s worth. About 3,000 tons of steel rebar, amounting to 1,800 miles in length, is involved in the project.

“That would be like driving from Duluth to Orlando,” Huston said.

There will be no change in traffic flow throughout the summer, as travelers will continue to use the four-lane bypass that includes lower Michigan Street.

Twin Ports Interchange Project.
An excavator dumps a bucket full of fill near two workers on the Twin Ports Interchange job site Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Next fall, we’ll have an entire new northbound constructed and the operation then will be to take the traffic from where it is today and put two lanes of northbound and two lanes of southbound traffic temporarily on that northbound,” Huston said of a changeover expected in late October.

MnDOT officials again credited the contractor — a joint venture between Ames Construction, of Burnsville, Minnesota, and Kraemer North America, of Plain, Wisconsin — for the solution to maintaining four lanes of I-35 traffic.

Roadway completion is scheduled for fall 2023, with further landscaping and finishing touches in spring 2024.

Neither MnDOT nor the city of Duluth commented on the ongoing investigation into February’s gas line rupture by the contractor. The incident occurred on the project site and disrupted natural gas service to the eastern half of Duluth, with the city calling for residents in some neighborhoods to reduce their thermostats to 62 degrees for several days.

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Blatnik Bridge is awaiting potential $1.8B replacement project starting in 2028, so what's the 2022 project?

Until the Blatnik solution is made permanent sometime in the 2030s, MnDOT is responsible for maintaining the 51-year-old bridge, which suffers from a debilitating rust issue that can only be repaired and not reversed. The $6.3 million rehabilitation work this summer will close one lane in each direction from June through October.

On tap for the bridge: deck and rail repairs, flood sealing and some drainage added.

Why slow down near Barnum this summer?

The northbound I-35 roadway for 6 miles on either side of Barnum will be closed this summer and the subject of a $9.5 million concrete pavement resurfacing project from June to October.

That means traffic will be rerouted onto the southbound roadway using one lane for each direction. A speeding ticket in construction zones costs $300, and MnDOT officials pleaded for drivers to slow down around project work throughout Northeastern Minnesota.

Sometimes state highways are main streets, too, and MnDOT has been taking part in a lot of those urban projects in recent years. Where have those occurred already and what’s next?

As crews finish up a third season of work on Highway 53 through International Falls this spring, Highway 123 Sandstone and Highway 210 in Cromwell are ticketed for reconstruction next.

MnDOT recently completed downtown highway projects in Biwabik, Gilbert and Grand Marais. Coming later this decade: Central Entrance and London Road in Duluth, Highway 61 through Two Harbors, and westbound Highway 11 in International Falls.

“With our urban reconstruction projects, when we develop them, we work really closely … to try to understand what the community needs,” said Duane Hill, district engineer leading the Duluth MnDOT office.

Twin Ports Interchange Project.
A front-end loader moves a load of fill on the Twin Ports Interchange job site Thursday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Hill said MnDOT approaches all of its urban projects with a “complete street approach” mandated by the state legislature, meaning Americans with Disabilities Act access, as well as paths for pedestrians and cyclists.

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Hill said the approach was creating significant improvements in communities for cyclists and non-motorists.

Urban projects require years of lead-time with MnDOT and city officials planning upgrades together. Roadwork often creates an opportunity to update city utilities.

“Sometimes the age of utilities drives what type of work we’re going to do,” Hill said. “We usually try to start those (discussions) before planning the actual dollar investment, like 10 years ahead.”

What’s happening on Highway 61 north of Two Harbors?

A bridge project will continue at Stewart River with construction of a new bridge, new pavement and turn lane at Betty’s Pies. Next year comes rehabilitation of the historic bridge, and both bridges will be maintained going forward.

Also, at the nearby Silver Creek Bridge, the project includes construction of a new bridge, stream restoration and new pavement.

Construction at Stewart River starts April 18, and at Silver Creek on May 16.

Traffic on Highway 61 will continue on the temporary bypass at Silver Creek through fall. The bypass carries northbound and southbound traffic on 11-foot driving lanes. There will be no bike or pedestrian access through the construction zone. In addition, the Kelsey Beach parking lot will be closed during construction.

What’s the longest stretch of work?

State Highway 65 in Itasca and Koochiching counties will be repaved across nearly 43 miles, including new guardrail, erosion control, rumble strips and frost heave corrections. It’s an $11.1 million project. An adjoining $6.3 million project is located on Highway 1 and includes more than 17 miles of pavement reclamation from Effie to Deer Lake.

“It is a pavement reclamation project where we’re actually grinding up the existing road surface and turning it into a new base and then paving over the top of it,” said Jeff Tillman, project engineer based in Grand Rapids.

The projects start in June and last through December and September, respectively.

Twin Ports Interchange Project.
A man works on an overpass pier on the Twin Ports Interchange job site.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
SEE ALSO
Improvements are aimed for Midway Road and Miller Trunk intersections with state Highway 194.

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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