MnDOT costs soar to $20M on Mission Creek bridge, burial recovery
New bridge targeted for 2024, while top MnDOT official says there are still recovery efforts planned for burial remains this summer.
When all is said and done, the price for desecrating a burial ground in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth will cost the Minnesota Department of Transportation an estimated $17 million above original project costs.
“That’s all-in, everything that we can ever imagine, so that we can finish this mess,” said district engineer Duane Hill, MnDOT’s top official in Duluth.
To be sure, Hill was referring to a mess of MnDOT’s making. The cemetery was disturbed in 2017 by heavy equipment work on a Minnesota Highway 23 bridge replacement project over Mission Creek. That original $3.1 million project was scrapped as recovery efforts took over for the ensuing two years.
The revived bridge replacement project will be the subject of a public meeting from 6-7 p.m. Thursday at the Gary New Duluth Rec Center.
It's been a difficult period for the MnDOT office in Duluth. In addition to ongoing fallout from the cemetery disturbance in Fond du Lac, MnDOT reported in December that its upcoming Twin Ports Interchange project through Lincoln Park came in $100 million over budget , necessitating elements of that project be delayed.
Hill walked through the Highway 23/Mission Creek costs with the News Tribune last week in the wake of a public meeting on Mission Creek cemetery restoration . The soaring total was first reported by the Star Tribune last week.
The estimated $20 million start-to-finish cost dwarfs the original $3.1 million bridge replacement project. The projected cost to revisit the bridge reconstruction project alone is an estimated $4.2 million.
“We still have to do the right thing,” Hill said. “We still have to treat it respectfully and work through the process, regardless of the cost.”
Hill outlined the year-by-year costs dedicated to the site, including planning costs that date back to 2013:
2016: $193,000 (all planning for bridge reconstruction);
2017: $723,000, bridge reconstruction contract that was canceled, security for the site and early recovery costs;
2018: $2.8 million, recovery work, largely to Hamline University;
2019: $4.3 million, recovery work, largely to Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa;
2020: $3.6 million, cemetery architecture and fall prep work, plus final recovery costs;
2021: projected $1.9 million, landscaping cemetery, environmental review of new bridge work;
2022: projected $2.2 million, preliminary Highway 23/Mission Creek bridge design and mitigation for desecration;
2023: projected $4.2 million, Highway 23/Mission Creek design and construction.
Hill acknowledged there may be recovery work yet to do this summer on stockpiles of soil created when excavation started in 2017. The piles are outside of the central cemetery site where recovery work for burial remains, grave goods and artifacts was completed last year.
“We’re trying to expedite it by doing shovel testing,” Hill said. “If we find remains, we’ll probably end up sifting all of the soil.”
Also this summer, MnDOT will conduct a $200,000 project to construct what will be 134th Street West. Nearby West Fourth Street is being abandoned since it crosses through the existing burial ground. The new 134th Street will be a short offshoot of Highway 23. It will bring access to a lone residence, and also allow people access to a proposed sacred gathering spot inside the cemetery.
Hill also described budgeting for mitigation. Since MnDOT desecrated a historic property, federal law requires that it negotiate mitigation with all parties. The Army Corps of Engineers, a state historic preservation officer, and the tribe will need to decide on what mitigation looks like, be it a historical monument or some other gesture.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be,” Hill said, adding that he budgeted a $2 million placeholder in the 2022 budget to account for mitigation.
As far as the new bridge reconstruction, it has yet to appear in the State Transportation Improvement Program, also known as STIP — the four-year plan for upcoming projects.
But Hill said the project will be ticketed for 2024.
“If there’s anything we can do to move it up, we will,” he said, acknowledging some community unrest about the issue. “They were not happy it wasn’t in the STIP.”
There is already a mill-and-overlay project scheduled for Highway 23 from Boy Scout Landing west to the Fond du Lac neighborhood in 2023. Hill said he’d love to see the projects come together.
Regarding the new bridge, it will no longer be a part of a four-lane divided highway through the neighborhood.
“We have a concept right now, and we want to hear what people think,” Hill said. “It puts the new roadway and bridge right where traffic is today, instead of where it was.”