Rep. Pete Stauber held a roundtable Wednesday in Duluth to hear from local labor and industrial leaders about the economic and safety benefits of accelerating the delayed work on the Garfield Avenue and Interstate 535 interchange on Rice's Point.
Rice's Point supports more than 1,000 industrial jobs and tens of thousands of heavy truck trips each year, said Jonathan Lamb, president of the shipping company Duluth Cargo Connect. Currently, oversized loads can't use the interchange to access the interstate because of load restrictions. Instead, the heavy cargo uses city streets when traveling in and out of the port.
"This ramp is the connection. It's the lifeblood to move freight in and out by truck," Lamb said. "To fully access and harness the benefit of (the Twin Ports Interchange project), we really need to accelerate and work on Garfield."
Stauber has submitted a community funding request to the U.S. House of Representatives of $29.6 million, which is 80% of the $37 million project. Enough state funding for the project wouldn't be available until 2028 without federal support.
"It's time to invest in this," Stauber said. "Our port is growing, the jobs and the economy and the competitive world we live in. We want to have the safest routes to and from because those businesses that want to do business with our ports, they look at not only the world-class port we have but the actual road infrastructure in and out."
He cited the project as one of the top priorities in his office, with the goal of incorporating it back into the current timeframe of the ongoing interchange project.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation would pay the other 20% and could potentially save $14 million inflation if the project is bumped up to the 2022 fiscal year.
MnDOT deferred two parts of the Twin Ports Interchange project, including work on U.S. Highway 53, back in 2019 in order to avoid going over the $343 million budget. The delayed work was rescheduled for 2027 and 2028.
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Plans for the Garfield Avenue section of the interchange project are 95% complete, said Duane Hill, MnDOT district engineer.
"Within six to 12 months we'd have a contractor on site working once we have that money available," Hill said. "So we're ready to go with this project and really excited about the opportunity to move it forward."
The Garfield Avenue and I-535 interchange rebuild would also improve the interchange's safety, while getting heavy and long loads, like windmill blades, off city streets.
Brian Hanson, president of economic development agency Apex, emphasized that companies that the rely on getting cargo in and out of the port offer some of the best jobs in the area.
"We need this project to protect all the individuals in those jobs," Hanson said.
Robb McGhie, operations manager for Perkins Special Transportation Contracting, tells clients transporting oversized cargo across the U.S. that the port of Duluth is "second to none," but comes with one caveat: It can be challenging to get loads in and out.
"What those challenges do is they into schedule inefficiency. That inefficiency in cargo of our size can relate from half a day to up to two days. As you can imagine, that inefficiency then has to translate to a cost increase for the customer," McGhie said. "The sooner we can get more efficient and the sooner we can get safer, the better."
Stauber said he expects to know the outcome of his request in the next few weeks to few months.
Crews are currently rebuilding the interchange between Interstate 535, Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 53.