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Highway 53 reroute between Eveleth and Virginia receives federal approval

Click on image to enlarge. (News Tribune graphic)

The reroute of U.S. Highway 53 over the Rouchleau Pit in Virginia is ready to move forward, after the estimated $230 million project was cleared for final permitting and construction by the Federal Highway Administration.

The planned new link between Virginia and Eveleth and its centerpiece — a 1,100-foot long, 100-foot wide bridge across the old mining pit — took the next step toward reality after the federal agency approved the Final Environmental Impact Statement and signed the Record of Decision for the project.

"This is an important step in the process of building this project," the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Duane Hill, a district engineer based in Duluth, said in an agency news release Friday.

Hill said MnDOT worked diligently with numerous agencies, cities, interest groups, consultants and contractors to evaluate alternatives, address constructability challenges and overcome funding hurdles for relocating the highway.

Construction should start before the end of the year, with completion slated for fall 2017.

Cliffs Natural Resources owns the mineral rights under the current roadway, which the state built and operated using an easement. In 2010, Cliffs informed stakeholders of its intent to expand the Thunderbird Mine that provides taconite iron ore for Cliffs' United Taconite operations. That notice set the clock running to May 1, 2017, for the road to be moved.

On Friday, Cliffs signed a contract agreeing to a November 2017 project completion date.

"Just to get to the starting line has been a crazy ride," said MnDOT project engineer Pat Huston of Duluth. "Today's (news) is a huge project milestone."

Huston explained the approved route was preferred by the project's assemblage of experts — bridge experts, roadway designers and environmental experts. It ended up working out as also the lowest-priced of the considered alternatives, with the shortest bridge crossing.

The current Highway 53 will be utilized until the completion of the new route.

To complete the Environmental Impact Statement, MnDOT evaluated the environmental and social impacts of alternatives and completed a risk assessment to select a preferred alternative. Initial findings were reported in a Draft EIS published in the Federal Register in December 2014. Five government agencies and 12 members of the public commented on the Draft EIS during its 45-day review period. These comments were considered in the development of the Final EIS.

The Final EIS describes the effects of constructing the preferred alternative and identifies what MnDOT will do to mitigate these impacts.

The Record of Decision was approved Sept. 10, completing the federal environmental review process. It was slated to be published in the Federal Register on Friday. MnDOT also concluded the state environmental review process with an "Adequacy Determination" on Sept. 10.

To see the documents

The Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision (ROD) can be viewed at MnDOT's project website:

dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/hwy53relocation, as well as at the MnDOT District 1 Office, 1123 Mesaba Ave., Duluth.

Hard copies of the Final EIS and ROD also will be available at:

• Eveleth Public Library, 614 Pierce Street, Eveleth

• Gilbert Public Library, 17 N. Broadway, Gilbert

• Mountain Iron Public Library, 5742 Mountain Avenue, Mt. Iron

• Virginia Public Library, 215 Fifth Avenue S, Virginia

• Duluth Public Library, 520 W. Superior St., Duluth

• Hennepin County Library — Minneapolis Central, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis

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