Two legs of work scrubbed in November from the "can of worms" reconstruction project through Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood have found a home — rescheduled for 2027 and 2028.
The reconstruction of the U.S. Highway 53 bridges through Lincoln Park and the Interstate 535 bridges and ramps onto Garfield Avenue through the port were scheduled into the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s 10-year Capital Highway Investment Plan, which is currently open for public comment.
Highway 53 work will come first in 2027, followed by I-535 in 2028.
In a statement, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority said it was "disappointed," since it means city streets will continue to be used for oversize loads out of the port.
The work on those legs of reconstruction had been deferred in November in order to keep the project in line with its $343 million budget.
“The importance of those bridges is that, like the rest of the interstate, they’re at or nearing the end of their life,” Pat Huston, major projects and assistant district engineer locally for MnDOT, said.
The three-year Twin Ports Interchange reconstruction project of Interstate 35 through Lincoln Park starts this fall, and begins in earnest next spring.
Once all work is completed following I-535 work beginning in 2028, freight movement, including such oversize loads as wind turbines, will be able to move throughout the confluence of U.S. 53, I-535 and I-35 — one of the primary goals throughout reconstruction planning along with driver safety, which is yielding the elimination of left exits and blind merges.
The decision to defer the work for later in the decade was viewed as a blow by the Port Authority.
Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Port Authority, called it “a big, complex project,” and noted that “MnDOT encountered several unanticipated challenges that affected the plan, schedule and budget.”
But she went on to characterize the agency’s disappointment.
“We have total respect for the MnDOT District 1 team, we understand how the deferral decision was made, and we know it wasn’t made lightly, but at the same time, of course we’re disappointed,” she said. “MnDOT was able to access federal funding for the project in large part because of the proposed improvements for freight movement through the interchange, but now trucks carrying oversize/overweight cargoes could be relegated to city streets, unable to take advantage of the interchange improvements, until 2028.
"That’s unfortunate, especially considering Duluth’s status as a major multimodal transportation hub for large cargoes," DeLuca said.
Huston told the News Tribune it wasn’t possible to fit the work into MnDOT’s four-year window of projects already scheduled long ago. That left the work to fit into the agency’s 10-year plan. It’s conceivable, Huston said, the projects could be moved closer if a federal infrastructure stimulus package were to come along. But even then, “we have all kinds of needs across the state,” he said.
“(I)t’s the reality of the situation,” DeLuca added, “so we’ll continue to work with MnDOT on seeking creative solutions, including identifying additional funding sources.”
With the projects now years away, Huston said some maintenance preservation of the bridges will take place during I-35 reconstruction. He described the bridges as safe, but limited to legal-size loads only with no permitting for oversize loads.
“I want to emphasize the bridges are safe and will remain safe until we replace them,” he said.
The Highway 53 project is scheduled to come in between $40.8 million and $55.2 million, while the I-535 projects — four bridges and ramps in total — is set to cost between $18.2 million and $24.4 million.
Repair or replacement of the Blatnik Bridge on I-535 between Duluth and Superior was also confirmed for 2028 in the 10-year report. The project has a cost of $170 million to $230 million, but MnDOT spokesperson Pippi Mayfield called those estimates "placeholders," and nothing that could be considered official.
To comment on the 10-year plan, visit dot.state.mn.us/planning/10yearplan.