Eveleth Mayor Robert Vlaisavljevich has been piloting aircraft for 40 years. Lately, he's been using his flyovers to check out progress on the U.S. Highway 53 Relocation Project.
"I've got a lot of friends around the area," said Vlaisavljevich, in his eighth and likely final term as mayor. "We always go over there and take a look - snooping, you know."
What he and others can see now is a $230 million project nearing its functional completion. The highway is scheduled to reopen in mid- to late-August.
"It's the homestretch," said Minnesota Department of Transportation project engineer Pat Huston. "We've still got a lot of technical work yet."
The project includes construction of what will be the state's tallest traffic bridge. At 200 feet high, the bridge over the Rouchleau Pit is higher than the Blatnik Bridge that spans the Twin Ports. The sixth and final concrete pour of the bridge deck occurred a couple weeks ago.
The relocation of Highway 53 was necessitated when mining interests notified MnDOT in 2010 that the road would need to be moved. While the winding four-lane highway will be drivable later this summer, final landscaping will take place in summer 2018.
Despite being beset by a slightly wetter spring and summer than normal, Huston said, "we're still roughly a month-and-a-half ahead of schedule."
Huston ticked through a checklist of items still to be completed:
• Pouring of concrete approach panels that serve as a transition from bridge to roadway
• Construction of the pedestrian plazas at either end of the bridge
• Concrete finishing work - grinding and patching - prior to painting of the bridge and its two giant piers
• Application of the bridge deck surface - layers of epoxy and small rock that protects the bridge surface and gives it added traction
• Final stages of deck railing, including the 10-foot steel ornamental rail at the edge of the bridge along the pedestrian trail, which is protected on the inside from northbound traffic by another concrete rail.
Additionally, the new roadway is coming together in key spots for a project which includes more than 3 miles of roadway bending north of Eveleth before descending across the pit and into Virginia. Included on the roadway are a new interchange with Minnesota Highway 135 at the south end and a Highway 53 connection with Virginia's Second Avenue on the north end.
"There's a lot of activity in that area," Huston said of the north entrance into Virginia. "But in between those two areas, there's a lot of blacktop already down."
The water and sewer lines buried along the roadway and hung under the bridge are also being tested, Huston said.
The opening of the Highway 53 bridge has elicited a four-day festival, Bridge Daze, in Virginia and its surrounding communities from Aug. 17-20. The celebration will come with a car show, brew fest, community walk across the bridge and downtown Virginia "art crawl." A contest to name the bridge closes July 15.
After much community apprehension during its planning stages, Vlaisavljevich said he's sensing the anticipation build.
"It's really quite a structure that's being built," he said. "It's such a high bridge; everybody's still wondering what it's going to be like to drive it in the winter."
Highway 53 Bridge Daze
For a calendar of events and to enter the bridge naming contest, visit www.bridgedaze.com.