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Another $168 million of work added to Twin Ports Interchange

Reconstruction of the Garfield Avenue interchange and Highway 53 ramps will dovetail with ongoing reconstruction, ending years of potential delays.

Aerial view of highway construction site.
The Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction project site as seen in this aerial view from June 21. Girders have been installed as part of the Interstate 535 on and off ramps with northbound Interstate 35, and retaining walls, some as tall as 30 feet high, are being constructed to separate the roadway from railyard.
Contributed / Minnesota Department of Transportation
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DULUTH — Interchange work on Interstate 35 through Lincoln Park will now include aspects of the project that had been put on hold.

U.S. Highway 53 bridges toward Piedmont and the Miller Hill Mall, and an interchange on Garfield Avenue leading into and out of the port, will begin as soon as late summer.

Because of escalating overall project costs, Highway 53 work had been delayed originally until 2027, and Garfield Avenue until 2028. But the Minnesota Department of Transportation is leveraging its part of federal infrastructure funding to make the work happen in conjunction with the ongoing project through the neighborhood.

“MnDOT is moving forward with some shovel-ready projects to utilize the new federal funding to the best of our ability,” said Duane Hill, district engineer in charge of Duluth’s MnDOT office, during a public meeting Monday.

The added work carries an estimated $167.7 million price tag to go along with the existing $343 million Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction, bringing the full project total to more than a half-billion dollars, at $510 million.

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The U.S. Highway 53 and Interstate 535 legs of Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction have been scheduled for 2027 and 2028, respectively.

Hill noted MnDOT has available funding for the project, and is still looking for the state legislature to give MnDOT spending authority on its portion of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure package. Minnesota is ticketed to receive $240 million per year for five years from the bipartisan infrastructure legislation passed in 2021.

For now, MnDOT will work with the current contractors of the Twin Ports Interchange — Ames Construction, of Burnsville, Minnesota, and Kraemer North America, of Plain, Wisconsin — on a plan to add the once-delayed work.

“It’s more efficient,” Hill said. “We’re working with Ames-Kraemer to develop a price, and we have to make sure it’s fair and reasonable.”

Bid letting is open into July, followed by negotiations and then the start of construction as soon as August.

newly funded reconstruction areas.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

The added Highway 53 work means it will be reopened in fall 2024, Hill said, a year later than anticipated.

The brand new northbound I-35 entry and off-ramp bridges connecting to I-535 were scheduled to reopen later this fall. But those openings now will be delayed a year, until fall 2023, in order to fulfill the Garfield Avenue work, coming where I-535 splits from Garfield Avenue and flows over the BNSF rail yard.

The port of Duluth and Rice’s Point will be a major beneficiary of the rebuilt interchange with Garfield Avenue, with roadways being widened by 6 feet and capable of handling oversize loads transported by ground freight.

“We applaud MnDOT for moving the final work packages for the Twin Ports Interchange project forward in the face of funding challenges, including the disappointing conclusion to the legislative session," said Deb DeLuca, Port Authority executive director. "We’re appreciative of MnDOT’s perseverance and creativity in ensuring completion of these vital project components without further delay.”

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DeLuca praised "safe, efficient and improved freight flow into and out of the port," and noted wind-energy components as an example when adding that completion of the Garfield Avenue ramps was "critical" for oversize and overweight loads.

Pete Marthaler, MnDOT’s major projects manager overseeing the interchange reconstruction, weighed in at Monday's public meeting.

“The Highway 53 bridge replacement will result in a complete reconstruction of the bridge that’s still standing,” Marthaler said, noting how MnDOT will now discard a planned temporary connection to Highway 53.

The Highway 53 work will carry through the neighborhood until it reaches the newer portion of Piedmont Avenue reconstructed within the past 20 years.

Marthaler noted how MnDOT is using a four-girder design, replacing a two-girder model, when building the new bridges and ramps throughout the project, making the entirety of the work “load path redundant.”

“If we were ever challenged for structural integrity or capacity for whatever reason, with one of these girders, the bridge is still safe,” Marthaler said. “We’re not in a situation where the (whole) structure would fail.”

Crews continue to work in the northbound lanes, making ground improvements and building bridge piers and retaining walls that will separate the rebuilt roadway from the rail yard.

Much of the rebuilt I-35 roadway will be at grade on top of layers of ground improvements — technology that wasn’t available when the roadway was built in elevated fashion on piers.

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Ground improvements, creek-merging and steel placement among latest Twin Ports Interchange developments.

The project began in 2021 and is expected to last until 2024, when finishing touches and landscaping take over from most of the heavy construction. Much of the roadway is expected to be functioning late in 2023, save for the Highway 53 bridge reconstruction scheduled to finish a year later.

Until then, MnDOT noted an increased use of Garfield Avenue, with travelers accessing the Blatnik Bridge that way with I-535 ramps closed to I-35.

“It’s very evident Garfield is over-capacity,” Marthaler said. “There’s not much we can do about it other than keep encouraging people to take the Bong Bridge.”

Because of the higher volume of traffic on Garfield Avenue, MnDOT is installing a temporary traffic signal at Helberg Drive — one of the main access ways into the port.

“Try to use the Bong Bridge when feasible,” Marthaler said during the public meeting.

Come this fall, all traffic will be moved into the newly built northbound lanes of I-35. That will open up southbound I-35 for demolition and rebuilding, with lower Michigan Street closed through the remainder of the project as a staging area for construction.

“We’ll be done with interstate and bridge work in fall 2023,” Marthaler said.

This story was updated at 7:45 a.m. June 29, 2022, to correct the reopening date of Highway 53 to 2024. It was originally posted at 5:31 p.m. June 28, 2022.

Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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