Kyle Dodds works in the Duluth port and has observed a purely local phenomenon nearly every day since mid-July. That's when a stockpile of wind energy parts began leaving the port, piece by oversized piece.
“Those poor truck drivers, having to get up the hill through a residential neighborhood up to (U.S.) Highway 53,” Dodds said. “It’s cumbersome at best.”
They trudge the wind blades out of the local port in the early morning hours to avoid congestion. Too big for aging freeway infrastructure, the trucks and their escorts are forced to avoid Interstate 35, using city streets — Garfield Avenue, then Piedmont Avenue — to reach U.S. Highway 53 and their path out of town.
Dodds sees it unfold as plant manager at BendTec, located on the port at 366 Garfield Ave. BendTec sends regulation size and weight flatbeds out onto the interstate loaded with large-diameter pipes the company bends to customers’ specifications.
BendTec is one of many operations trucking equipment and products through the heart of Duluth’s port on Rice’s Point. The industrial area figures to be a big winner come 2022, when the majority of work on the Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction project is completed — featuring new ramps and bridges built to ease almost all trucks onto the interstate.
“Absolutely it will make it easier for all trucks to get in and out of here,” Dodds said. “We’re not going to like it while it’s going on, but we’re all for it.”
Known locally as the “can of worms,” the Twin Ports Interchange is the convergence of I-35 with I-535 and U.S. Highway 53 through Lincoln Park. The $342 million reconstruction project proposes to make the roadway safer for all travelers and is specifically being designed to handle increased truck traffic in a more fluid manner.
MnDOT planners have met with industrial and trucking firms throughout the planning process as part of monthly advisory meetings.
“They’ve made a good effort to acknowledge truck traffic in the area,” said Kate Ferguson, director of trade and business development for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
The new interchange and its bridges and ramps will take into account things such as the turning radius of even the longest loads — including the nearly 230-foot wind blades.
“The bridges are at the end of their useful life and were not constructed for loads coming out of the port today — the long wind blades and some of the weights,” Roberta Dwyer said of infrastructure that opened in the early 1970s. “We want to get those oversize and overweight loads back on the interstate.”
Dwyer is the MnDOT project manager for the Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction. In addition to eliminating blind spots and hazardous stretches for drivers, one of the main aims of the project has been to “continue to provide freight mobility to the port,” she said during July's public update on the project.
It’s been welcome news for Duluth port industries. One business manager who spoke to the News Tribune couldn’t use his nationally owned firm as an example, but he called the upgrades “long overdue … highly anticipated … and extremely valuable,” explaining that Duluth is already a more expensive Midwestern trucking route than places situated on east-west byways, such as the Twin Cities and Chicago.
Other sources echoed that refrain, and said Duluth needs all of the advantages it can derive.
“Most of what we’re doing is deadline driven,” Dodds said of port trucking. “They’re scheduled to be at our location at a certain time of day, we load, we’ve got a third-party inspector standing there releasing the truck and the truck goes.”
Firms in and around Rice’s Point operate their trucking bays 16 hours a day, including late into the night. Sometimes, trucks can get caught up with the city’s congested event traffic at nearby Bayfront Festival Park.
“Even on a Friday night when Bentleyville (Tour of Lights) is really ramping up, they’re still trying to get trucks in and out of facilities — and we’ve all seen the cars that can line up all the way down Railroad Street,” Ferguson said.
For the Port Authority, the Twin Ports Interchange project represents a strong recognition of the city’s industrial present.
Ferguson described a robust trucking scene. Truck traffic tripled at the Port Authority in the 12 years leading up to its 2017 launch of Duluth Cargo Connect, the dockside truck-and-rail hub operated in conjunction with Lake Superior Warehousing.
Lately, Duluth Cargo Connect has been rolling out 12-18 trucks per week carrying oversized wind parts, which first arrive aboard ships from overseas.
The idea that cargoes will go from sea or rail to interstate and skip city streets in a few years offers relief for those whose job it is to worry about those sorts of things.
“It’s going to be a marked improvement over our current interchange,” Ferguson said. “Where right now we have to 100 percent route those on city streets in order to get out of our terminal, in the future those will be pushed over the Twin Ports Interchange.”
In addition to rebuilding the I-35/I-535 interchange, the final $42 million of the total project will go toward rebuilding the I-535 interchange with Garfield Avenue, located on Rice's Point, less than a mile from the main I-35/I-535 interchange.
Some of the ramps will be wider and sight distances improved, Dwyer said.
“We can’t make too many changes and still allow it to match to the adjacent Blatnik Bridge,” she said.
The work on both sections of I-535 is scheduled to begin in winter 2020 and conclude in fall 2021. The final $42 million has yet to be funded, but Dwyer remained hopeful the money “will be found for the project,” she said.
Funds dedicated for freight have allowed MnDOT planners to help raise $300 million to date.
Even completed, there will always be the exceptional load that won’t be able to use the interstate through Duluth — the rare truck that has to use city streets.
“We’re estimating about 99 percent of trucks will flow over the interchange in the future,” Ferguson said. “There are some things that will just never go on the interchange — if it’s just too heavy or too wide.”