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Duluth readies to rebuild Superior Street

This aerial view shows Superior Street at 5th Avenue West looking east. Downtown Superior Street is slated for reconstruction beginning this spring. (file / News Tribune)

Last week, the Duluth City Council approved $1.46 million to complete the final design and oversee the reconstruction of Superior Street, including the conversion of the steam plant to a new, more efficient system that will use hot water to heat much of the city's downtown.

Bids for the first phase of construction were opened Wednesday, and Northland Constructors of Duluth emerged with the most competitive offer. Its bid of about $28 million came in roughly $5 million lower than an engineering estimate of around $33 million, according to Duncan Schwensohn, a senior engineer for the city of Duluth.

While City Council approval will be required to award the contract, Schwensohn said he expects construction to begin as soon as weather permits, perhaps by April or May.

The initial project will focus on the segment of West Superior Street between Lennox Place in the 700 block and Third Avenue West. The entire project through downtown Duluth is expected to take three years to complete.

As part of its $2.35 million contract, LHB Inc. drew up detailed plans and will watch over the reconstruction project, making sure the road and utilities are all put in according to design specifications.

Meanwhile, Ever-Green Energy Inc. will oversee the steam plant conversion and switchover as part of its own $1.88 million contract.

The engineering and project oversight costs are pretty well in line with expectations, according to David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer.

More funding needed

One variable that continues to complicate the steam conversion is the fact that this portion of the project has been funded only in part.

Montgomery said the city initially had requested $21 million in state bonding funds to support the steam system upgrade, but it was asked to break the project into phases.

Duluth received $15 million to start the project, with the understanding that there would be a subsequent request for the remainder of the money needed to complete it.

"We did acknowledge that it could increase the cost slightly, which is why we're going back this year, asking for $7 million instead of $6 million," Montgomery said.

He warned that additional delays by the state could push the cost even higher.

"We're stressing the importance this time around of saying: 'We really need this second round of funding, not because we're going to build it all this year, but because we're trying to bid it out as a unified project, which will lower the cost. A contractor can plan for it, they can build it into their calendar. They will have familiarity with the project from the first year that they can bring to the second year, and you're not starting with a whole new bid process, which takes time and costs more money.' That's why we're pushing very hard for the second phase to be approved this year," Montgomery said.

Complicated dance

The Superior Street project will coincide with work the Minnesota Department of Transportation will be doing on another major Duluth thoroughfare — Mesaba Avenue. Schwensohn said the overlapping projects required intricate coordination.

"We changed our phasing a little bit, and they changed their phasing a little bit to reduce the impact to traffic as much as we could," he said.

"They're staying north for the first phase, while we fix Fifth Avenue West, and then when they want to move south onto Mesaba, Fifth Avenue West will be open again, because that is kind of a major detour route that they wanted to use as they move south on the project," Schwensohn said.

One-time dig

Schwensohn said the city also has decided to spring for the replacement of lateral sewer lines to individual Superior Street properties while the road is dug up. He noted that many of those aged laterals are in such poor condition that they would require replacement within the next decade, regardless.

"We decided to add that into the project so we're not going back and digging into a brand new road. It's our goal to have a five-year moratorium on digging anything on Superior Street, because it has been my experience that nothing frustrates the public more than when you build a new road and then a month later you start punching holes in it," Schwensohn said.

Despite all the research and planning that has gone into the ambitious project, Schwensohn said that many unknowns remain.

"There are a lot of areas that haven't been dug up for 100-and-some years. So we did the best we could to find out what we'll encounter underground, but I anticipate there are going to be at least some surprises," he said.