Officials upset over MnDOT’s decision to pursue alternatives to a costly rerouting of Hwy. 169 in the Eagles Nest area should step back and consider the real objective of this much-needed highway improvement project.
While the effort to obtain federal funds for this project was sparked by a tragic accident in Eagles Nest Township several years ago, and was led by officials from Ely, those don’t constitute valid justifications for inefficient government spending.
We hear criticism of waste in government every day of the week. Yet in this case, the suggestion that MnDOT may pursue less costly alternatives to boost highway safety between Tower and Ely has brought criticism from officials who should know better.
Mayor Roger Skraba calls the change in direction “an epic fail by MnDOT,” but the honorable Mayor knows from personal experience the tough decisions that limited financial resources force upon decision-makers all the time.
We certainly wouldn’t suggest that MnDOT is a model of governmental efficiency. But department officials have, on more than one occasion, resisted local political pressure to pursue projects that didn’t merit the expense. If local politics had won out, we’d have a four-lane highway we don’t need running all the way to International Falls.
No one, of course, would sensibly deny the need for improvements to Hwy. 169, which carries comparable traffic to Hwy. 53, yet does so with a significantly lower standard of safety. But the Eagles Nest stretch isn’t the only segment in desperate need of improvement. And it certainly isn’t the only stretch to see a fatal accident in recent years.
Indeed, the 13 Hills section in Vermilion Lake Township is the most dangerous stretch along the entire corridor based on MnDOT’s own crash data. While that segment’s most accident-prone location, the Black Bear curve, will be straightened beginning this year, improvements to other parts of the 13 Hills stretch were shelved because of the high cost of the Eagles Nest reroute.
MnDOT’s decision is supported by their own cost-benefit analysis, which found a disappointing 63¢ return for every dollar invested in the Eagles Nest reroute. We wouldn’t spend our own money that inefficiently, so why should we ask government to do so?
Unfortunately, the usual political fault lines seem to be fueling much of the anger over MnDOT’s decision, since potential environmental impacts have apparently played a part in the decision.
To most people, that might logically be seen as a good thing. After all, the environmental review currently underway is supposed to weigh all of the various effects of a major construction project before officials make a final decision to move forward. In this case, MnDOT has found that the safety improvements don’t justify the construction cost and that the potential environmental impacts from blasting 240,000 cubic yards of rock known to contain sulfide minerals is a wild card that only adds to the downside risk.
Taking this information and deciding to pursue less risky and costly alternatives— that could very easily yield equivalent or superior safety benefits— is an example of the review process working the way it was intended.
But common sense and logic don’t always motivate decision-makers in our area, particularly when environmental concerns enter the mix. In this case, the fact that cabin owners on Six Mile Lake originally raised the sulfide issue— most likely out of a desire to protect their quiet solitude—has unquestionably contaminated the discussion.
By the dominant political calculus of our area, these cabin owners qualify as environmentalists, NIMBYs, or both, and, sadly, it means that whatever they oppose must now be pushed forward regardless of the costs. Otherwise the environmentalists win, an outcome that is always highly irritating to many local officials.
We need to stop thinking like this, because it’s ultimately destructive and, in this case, a waste of money.
Let’s forget the egos and age-old feuding and focus on the objective here: getting the most safety bang for our buck on Highway 169. That’s something on which everyone should be able to agree.