Ambition meets reality at Highway 53 bridge project on Iron Range
EVELETH — The temporary construction offices of the U.S. Highway 53 bridge and relocation project are located in an old call center that once belonged to an online retailer.
Inside are carpets tracked with the red clay of the construction site and an array of cubicles and conference rooms that are decorated in mechanical drawings.
On any given day, the place buzzes with fresh-faced engineers and grizzled veterans alike.
It appears as the sort of place lit by its collective brainpower.
"It's a requirement for planning and execution," said project engineer Pat Huston of the Minnesota Department of Transportation whose job it is to wrestle with the big picture details.
On a rain-soaked and mud-filled Tuesday that forced construction to slow to a crawl, Huston gave the News Tribune a close-up look at progress on the ambitious $230 million project that will shift U.S. Highway 53 east before bending it back over the cavernous Rouchleau Pit into neighboring Virginia.
"It's one of the most visible projects with our agency right now," Huston said as his heavy-duty pickup rumbled over a network of rock-laden roads accessing the pit. The rain was probably a good thing, he added, because the contractor, Kiewit Corporation of Omaha, Neb., and 20 other mostly local subcontractors usually fill the craggy access roads with industrial traffic.
To work in the mining environment the road builders have had to behave like miners, employing explosives and 40-ton dump trucks and the loaders that can fill them in three scoops of the bucket.
"You don't see loaders this size on a normal highway project," Huston said, marveling at a bucket that could fit a few elephants.
Construction began Nov. 2. So far, the results are a landscape familiar to union steelworkers but alien to most others — vast earth stripped beyond its silts and clay down to a rocky crust. Contractors are performing what Kiewit project manager Rob Ramer called a "sub-excavation," in order to reach a suitable roadbed that won't compress like clay.
"It's extremely hard rock," Ramer said, describing it as a shade less dense than iron ore.
After explosives were used to shape the ledges that drop sharply into the pit, workers in harnesses clung to the vertical slopes on either edge and used pry bars to release loose rock, Huston said. The ledges are now draped with steel mesh to contain the dangers of falling rock.
White ropes throughout the site are used to mark wetland areas as not to be disturbed and there's a 50-foot no-go zone near the future bridge abutments to keep people away from the edges.
Up a ways along the Rouchleau ledge, a waterfall robust with added rain spilled long and hard down into the pit.
"It's that something?" Huston said, giving life to the notion that the bridge could become a tourist attraction in itself.
Down below, the causeway that crosses shore-to-shore through what is the city of Virginia's water supply took two months to build. It travels directly under the future bridge and gives contractors solid ground from which to work. The causeway required an endless parade of dump trucks to haul 310,000 cubic yards of native rock to fill a span that is 170 feet deep in some places.
Pilings for both of the bridge's piers have been drilled deep into the rock. The process of framing rebar upward and pouring concrete has begun; the piers will rise roughly 200 feet to a bridge that will be higher off the water than the Blatnik Bridge between Duluth and Superior.
Huston put to rest what he described as pesky but unfounded rumors of foreign steel useage by saying the massive girders that support the 1,125-foot-long deck of the bridge are being fabricated off-site and are required by law to be made out of American steel.
Travelers heading north through Eveleth will descend to the bridge through a graded corridor of new highway that will feature steep slopes of rock rising high off either shoulder.
"It's all downhill into Virginia," said Huston, a Duluth-based engineer who previously worked on the Piedmont Avenue reconstruction. "It'll be like something you see on the North Shore."
The bridge is unique in many respects.
There will be evaporating ponds landside and no storm drainage off the bridge itself, so as not to disturb the potable water supply below. In addition to four lanes for traffic, there will be a 14-foot-wide secure lane for snowmobilers, ATV riders and the bicyclists and pedestrians who use the Mesabi Trail that has also been rerouted over the bridge as part of the project.
Construction followed a fast-tracked, yearlong design and permitting process that made for a little piece of boardroom history for the way it brought MnDOT and the contractor into collaboration outside of the state's usual "we design; you build" arrangement.
The accelerated timeline was necessary to reach a November 2017 completion date. That's when Cliffs Natural Resources figures to start expanding its United Taconite Thunderbird Mine into areas occupied by the current Highway 53.
Everything that was theoretical when Cliffs first triggered a mineral rights clause in 2010 is now becoming reality.
"This is fun," said Ramer, of Vancouver, Wash. "To get out here and construct it is really satisfying."