Throughout the planning and construction of the U.S. Highway 53 bridge and relocation project between Eveleth and Virginia, there have been more than 50 public meetings under the banner of "Coffee and Conversation."
The meetings kept the public informed about the 4-mile, $230-million project that opens Friday - and drew a dedicated and core group of interested people.
"What I found interesting and rewarding is that they became advocates for the project," said Pat Huston, the project director who works out of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Duluth office. "They appreciated hearing the straight scoop and were able to straighten other people out with the facts."
The facts for Friday: the dedication ceremony for the bridge over the Rouchleau mine pit will be at 10:30 a.m. Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and other local elected officials will be on hand for the dedication, which will take place underneath the new bridge.
The public is invited to attend and can reach the bottom of the pit by taking an access road in Virginia - the start of which is located near the corner of Second Avenue and Third Street North on the northeast edge of town.
The bridge and road figure to open to traffic by early evening, but Huston said safety will come first. Pouring rain or poor weather, which is forecast, could jeopardize the opening as the roadway itself remains in the final stages of construction in some spots.
"We're still playing chess," is how Huston put it as he described how the final pieces are still falling into place. Travelers will find that the new four-lane road needs to meet up with the old four-lane road at the north end of the project; northbound and southbound traffic will all be on one side of the road in some areas for now; and the gravel shoulder isn't fully in place throughout the project.
Still, a process that began in 2010 - when mining interests notified MnDOT the road would need to be moved for access to iron ore under the highway - is nearly complete.
Construction started in November 2015 following a compacted environmental review/design process that was nine months instead of the usual two years.
The new bridge features a protected pedestrian/snowmobile lane in addition to the tallest clearance, at 200 feet, of any bridge in the state - barring railway bridges.
Part of the project development process included mineral rights acquisition, MnDOT reported on the project website. The state has purchased the mineral rights under the new alignment to ensure that MnDOT will not have to move the road again.
The landscaping along the new route will be completed in 2018.
"Unless we hear otherwise," Huston said. "The road will open Friday night."