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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Is there a fix for the flats?

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 3/20/24

EAGLES NEST TWP— What to do about Trygg Road? That’s the quandary facing St. Louis County public works officials as last year’s rash of flat tires on this several mile-long stretch …

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Is there a fix for the flats?


EAGLES NEST TWP— What to do about Trygg Road? That’s the quandary facing St. Louis County public works officials as last year’s rash of flat tires on this several mile-long stretch of county gravel here appears unabated, despite efforts to address the situation last fall.
Eighty-three-year-old Caroline Owens was just the latest victim of the unusually sharp rocks embedded within the graveled surface. She was up early Monday, headed for a morning swim in Babbitt, when one of her tires picked up one of the rocks that have been plaguing users of the road since last summer. She had to get her husband out of bed to come pick her up, while she arranged for the vehicle to be towed. “This was at least my fifth flat on the road over the past year,” said Owens. “We’ve always found sharp rocks stuck in the tires.”
County officials were hopeful they had resolved the issue last November, when they added a four-inch layer of gravel from a different pit to the road. That seemed to help, but only for a time. When county public works graded the road on Jan. 2, residents along the road reported three flats the very next day. While the road is typically snow-covered for several months during the winter, which would presumably reduce the problem, this year’s record warmth and lack of persistent snow-cover had left the road bare most of the year so far. Since the first of the year, at least five flats have been reported on the road, including one experienced by the local mail carrier.
Residents along the road say they’re incredibly frustrated at the inconvenience and expense the situation is causing. Resident Barb Soderberg said she’s worried whenever she has an appointment that she’ll end up with a flat along the way, something that already happened for a doctor’s appointment last fall. “The uncertainty of being able to go to meetings, run errands, or go to critical appointments is really wearing on residents,” she said. Between Soderberg and her husband Kurt, the couple has had eight flats since last summer when the county added six inches of newly-crushed gravel to the road. That’s cost them about $1,000 so far for tire repair and replacement, and towing.
As awareness of the issue spread throughout the township, residents along the road note that friends won’t visit any more for fear of a flat. Owens said her local book club will no longer meet at her house for the same reason.
Township officials have tried to respond. The town board sent a letter to Jim Foldesi, the county’s public works director, back in January, requesting a solution, but they’ve yet to receive a formal response.
Seeking answers
While the county has yet to develop a solution, Foldesi said one is in the works. He said he’s dispatched several top public works officials to Trygg Rd. more than once in recent days to assess the situation and determine how best to fix it. “I know folks are frustrated,” said Foldesi in an interview with the Timberjay. “We are too. But this is a headscratcher for us. It’s a real anomaly.”
Indeed, Foldesi said this is the first time the county has ever run into such a situation, which is saying something in a county that maintains over 100 borrow pits and 3,000 miles of public roads, about half of which are gravel. “We’ve been putting gravel on roads for 100 plus years and we have not seen this issue before,” he said.
According to Foldesi, the county typically maps out an annual maintenance plan, which will involve several roads in an area. Then, they’ll hire a contractor to crush enough gravel for the work in a nearby pit. In a typical summer, they’ll have four or five contract crushers operating in the north half of the county, with just as many operating in the south half.
“All gravel has crushed rock in it,” notes Foldesi, and some of that crushed rock will include sharp edges, which actually helps to improve traction on gravel roads. Foldesi said the crushed material used on Trygg Rd. appears to have fractured edges that are more elongated than usual, which appears to be creating the problem.
Foldesi said he had expected that adding four inches of a different gravel to the road last November would have resolved the problem. While that seemed to help for a time, it appears the problem has come back in the wake of the most recent grading, which may have brought some of the sharper material back to the surface.
What isn’t known is whether certain segments of the road are causing the problem, or if the sharper material is exposed along the entire roadway. That’s part of what county officials are hoping to determine. “We’ll continue to look at it,” said Foldesi. “We’re gathering data and hope to find a fix for it. Our goal is to find a solution sooner rather than later.” Any fix, of course, will have to wait until road restrictions are lifted, which typically isn’t until May.
Possible solutions
If there’s a “for sure” solution to the problem, it lies in the removal of the top several inches of the roadbed, which would include the top four inches of gravel added last fall along with the six inches of the problem gravel added early last summer.
“We could use a milling machine to pick it up,” said Foldesi. That’s a machine that is more typically used to remove blacktop before resurfacing a roadway. The material would be collected and could be used as base material on another project. “We wouldn’t want it for surface use,” said Foldesi.
While Foldesi said the county could ultimately go that direction, it’s an expensive option, although he said he hasn’t gotten any quotes on it at this point. He estimated the county already spent about $100,000 to add the additional gravel to the road last fall, and all that gravel would need to be removed to get at the problem material below.
“At some point, maybe we go there,” said Foldesi, although he’d first like to rule out cheaper options.
The only other alternatives would be to add even more material to the road, or to use county staff and equipment, like a grader, front end loader, and haul trucks to scrape off the problem gravel, before adding fresh gravel from a different pit.
While a solution is a high priority, Foldesi said his engineers are also trying to figure out how the problem occurred. “We’re working hard to understand it, not only so we can address it, but so we don’t ever see this again.”