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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota


Rough road becoming an issue between Tower and Virginia

Jodi Summit
Posted 2/5/19

TOWER— It’s become the talk of residents from Wuori Township to Ely. Hwy. 169, particularly the ten miles between the County Road 21 junction and Hwy 53, is so rough this winter it can shake your …

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Rough road becoming an issue between Tower and Virginia


TOWER— It’s become the talk of residents from Wuori Township to Ely. Hwy. 169, particularly the ten miles between the County Road 21 junction and Hwy 53, is so rough this winter it can shake your teeth out. Or at least filling, as one local resident reported recently on Facebook.

Rough roads in winter are hardly uncommon in the North Country, but the current condition of large stretches of Hwy. 169 this winter is the worst that many residents can recall.

Lake Vermilion Area Chamber President Troy Swanson, of Tower, posted about it earlier this week on the Tower Mn Facebook page, which he administers, and he struck a nerve with area residents, who weighed in by the hundreds to his question: “How bad is Highway 169 between Tower and Virginia?”

The responses came fast and furious.. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see 500 comments soon…Everybody wants to vent about it,” said Swanson.

Swanson asked folks to rate the road on a scale of one-to-ten, which some responders didn’t see as possible. “It breaks the scale,” wrote a teenager who goes to school in Virginia, “it’s more like 10,000.” As in 10,000 bumps.

Others compared the road to an amusement park ride, or said they thought they had a flat tire, before realizing it was just the bumps on the road.

Someone noticed the road’s frost heaves are so high that they cast shadows at night from the beams of car headlights.

A young mother said her two-year old thought he was going to be sick from all the bumps. “Why are you driving so bumpy?” he asked her.

Another responder, a local resident from Soudan, said the road was so bumpy that a filling had popped out of his tooth on his way to work that morning.

There were a few “positive” reviews.

“It is so bad my Fitbit registered 5,000 steps between Tower and Hwy. 53,” wrote one woman, though it is doubtful that the bumpy road actually provides any real exercise, except, perhaps, for the hand exercise needed to keep a grip on the steering wheel.

The road gets a lot of traffic pulling trailers, such as for snowmobiling this time of year, and these smaller trailers are having a rough time staying put on the road, forcing people to drive much slower than normal. Someone who was driving a horse trailer said they couldn’t go faster than 30 mph, much to the dismay of the cars and trucks behind her.

County Commissioner Paul McDonald agrees that the road needs attention, and soon. He now commutes down to Duluth on a regular basis so is familiar with the issue. He said the bus company that the Ely School uses for basketball games had a very rough ride over the weekend and was planning on writing a letter to MnDOT.

McDonald said the road is slated to be looked at in 2020. The road is a federal highway, but MnDOT would oversee any improvements.

Daniel Broten, of Tower, noted that the only way to get more attention to the issue was to “have our city and township representatives start hollering!!!! If enough people start squawking, maybe they will move up the date.”

The highway is expected to see steadily increasing traffic in future years, especially due to the opening of the new Lake Vermilion State Park and Campground. The portion of the highway between the intersection of County Road 26 (Wahlsten Rd) and the Pike River Bridge was totally rebuilt several years ago, along with a stretch of the highway between Soudan and Eagles Nest.

MnDOT public affairs spokesperson Beth Petrowski said that MnDOT has received many complaints about the condition of Hwy. 169 between Hwy. 53 and Tower this winter, most specifically the portion closer to Virginia.

“While this highway has historically been rather rough in the winter,” she said, “this year the condition of the highway is much worse than is typical.” 

“We have noticed the poor condition of this area, as well as several other highways this year,” said MnDOT District 1 Maintenance Superintendent Chris Cheney. “These highways are exhibiting what is known as ‘tenting’, which occurs when water enters the transverse joints in the pavement and freezes. As the ice beneath the pavement expands, it causes the pavement to heave on either side of the joint, causing a bump. The bumps or tenting as we call it, typically do not settle until the weather warms up and the ice beneath the pavement melts.”

Cheney added that the extremely wet fall, combined with early winter freeze/thaw cycles, caused more serious tenting this year.  

MnDOT has planned a resurfacing project for this area in 2020 to address the current pavement condition and provide a smoother road. In the meantime, hang onto your teeth!

MnDOT traffic counts shows, on average, 6,300 vehicles on this part of the highway per day on the section closest to Highway 53/Virginia, and 3,800 average cars per day once you get to Tower.


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