MnDOT
‘We have a Model T road’
Plans for Highway 169 project between Ely and Tower draw criticism at public hearing
Keith Vandervort
K. Vandervort
Ely residents Dean Erzar, left, and Chris Norman study the map of Highway 169 during a public hearing.

ELY – “We have a Model T road.”

That was pretty much the sentiment of those attending a public hearing Tuesday night to discuss the improvements to Hwy. 169 planned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Reconstruction of a six-mile stretch of road between Tower and Ely is scheduled to begin in 2015 and take about a year to complete, but the latest proposal from MnDOT isn’t sitting well with some residents in the Ely area.

About 75 residents and city officials gathered at Vermilion Community College to hear a presentation from MnDOT Project Manager Michael Kalnbach, with interjections and insight from local highway task force member Bill Erzar on the $15 million plan to rework almost six miles of Hwy. 169 between Six Mile Lake Road and Bradach Road.

“I don’t see many Model T’s up here,” continued Eagles Nest resident Chuck Renner. “I know we are at the end of the food chain up here, but we need a highway and not all these hills and curves.”

The latest plan for the stretch of road, with construction scheduled to start in 2015, replaces an original proposal for a major realignment of the highway. The new, less costly plan follows the existing alignment for the most part with some straightening of the curves and flattening of some hills to improve sightlines.

Kalnbach said 30 percent of the improvement project is on the existing corridor and approximately 70 percent is new alignment. “Eighteen alternatives were analyzed including property and environmental impacts, shading problems, maintenance costs, passing opportunities and construction staging,” he said.

The project has been in the works for many years. An all-volunteer task force based in Ely pushed hard for special funding for improvements in the wake of a series of serious accidents along the stretch, which highlighted the unsafe road conditions there. The federal funds were allocated toward improvements for the entire 50-mile stretch between Virginia and Ely. Other improvement projects along the corridor are underway, completed, or scheduled to begin.

The task force made it clear that the Eagles Nest stretch was the top priority.

“Our number one priority has always been about safety on that road,” Erzar said. “I must have about a million miles traveled on that road driving to minntac for more than 30 years. I have come up on numerous fatalities and serious accidents.”

Ely resident Ward Nelson, who has owned property in the area since 1970, said he has seen “lots of band-aids” put on the road and they have all been an improvement.

He said tree-shading over the road and the quickly-changing weather in northeast Minnesota have not been addressed. “Don’t make a band-aid be the preferred plan,” he said.

Agency review

A “southern” route major realignment option had been determined to be the preferred alternative by 2011, Kalnbach said. In late 2011, a “Cooperating Agency Review” with input from the Army Corps, of Engineers, Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Agencies and other parties determined the preferred route was not needed when comparing the scale of the project to traffic data and project cost.

Task force member and former Ely Mayor Roger Skraba said the project was always about safety on the road for travelers. “How can the E.P.A. come in and say it will cost too much money for too few miles?” he asked. “If I knew back in 2000 that they could and would do that, we would have had a much different approach to our planning.”

Kalnbach explained review by various agencies is required by law on all road projects. “No one knew this was going to happen,” he said. “We didn’t know that the E.P.A. would come in and change it.”

Traffic study

Erzar said the MnDOT traffic study done over the years to determine the amount of cars and trucks traveling on the only road into Ely is flawed.

MnDOT data show from 2000 to 2011 traffic counts from Tower to Soudan and Soudan to County Road 88 have pretty much roller-coastered up and down and are pretty consistent. Traffic counts from CR 88 to Ely was at 3,150 daily in 2000, 3,350 daily in 2004 and 4,000 daily in 2011.

“Those traffic counters were never in place on big weekends,” Erzar said. “One year I convinced them to put a counter up during Blueberry Arts and the count was up to 7,000. We are missing lots of information on the amount of traffic on that road. If we get new mining up here it will get much worse.”

Accident rate

Kalnbach showed data indicating reported crashes on the Eagles Nest stretch. Crashes per million vehicle miles during the study period were .63 along that portion of Highway 169. The average of reported crashes on two-lane roads in Minnesota is .6 per million vehicle miles.

Based on that, the conclusion was drawn that this road is as safe any other like it in the state, Kalnbach said.

Many residents in attendance related stories of pulling vehicles out of snow banks or the ditch along the road, many incidents not being reported.

St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman, who said he drives to Florida, Washington, D.C., and other far-away destinations said Highway 169 “is the most dangerous two-lane road I’ve ever driven on. You have logging trucks, tourists with campers, miners on shift changes all using this road at the same time.”

He continued, “Look, the bottom line here is that incidents don’t get reported here like they do in the cities. That accident data is totally screwed up.”

Detour an issue

The Eagles Nest project is scheduled to start in 2015 and be completed in 2016. Kalnbach said there will be a detour involved during part of the work. “We don’t have a detailed construction plan at this time but there will be some period of time when a detour will be needed,” he said.

When pressed on the location of a detour that could possibly involve traffic being diverted from Tower to Highway 21 to Babbitt and back to Ely, Kalnbach said there is no other detour route in the area available.

Ely School Board member Bill Skradski asked Kalnbach on the timing and duration of a detour during the project. “Our kids’ safety is important,” Skradski said.

“We have students traveling all over the area. Why not have the detour in the summer when school is out? I would be disappointed if kids in the area were on the bus 45 minutes longer, which means more (transportation) costs for all the taxpayers,” he said.

Kalnbach said detours and duration are determined by when the project is approved and contracts are in place. “We are not at that point yet,” he said.

Ely City Council member Warren Nikkola suggested the “southern” route option would keep the existing road open and a detour may not be needed. “That sounds safer to me,” he said.

Other projects

Meanwhile Hwy. 169 resurfacing in the cities of Ely and Tower will begin this summer, said Kalnbach. The project will result in new pavement and curbs along Sheridan Street as well as Tower’s Main Street. Work is expected to begin July 1.

Work on new pavement on stretches of Highway 169 will begin this year from Tower to Eagles Nest and Eagles Nest to Ely, including the removal of the railroad bridge and replacement with a box culvert. No detours are anticipated with the work, Kalnbach said.

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My Grandfather worked for many summers, building the road from Soudan to Ely. He lived in a canvas wall tent, which I still have today. Were he alive today, he would have dismissed those on the task force that were throwing around political spears, especially at Cravaack (please take note Billy Erzar) and would have urged everyone to get together to get this road rebuilt, rather than worrying about who would get credit for it. I have felt for a long time, this section of road has gotten the short shrift over the years, then I learn our enemies the Sierra Club got into the act and through up obstacles because they thought dangerous rock outcroppings would be disturbed. I don't care how many canoeists get killed on this road, but I pray those with outboard motors and snowmobiles do not and the loggers get to the mill safely.

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