VIRGINIA, Minn. -- A key stretch of US Highway 53 must be removed by 2017 to make way for the expansion of a taconite ore mine, based on the terms of an agreement the state struck with a mining company in 1960.
"We've got to move it because the State of Minnesota signed a contract with the mining company back then," Sen. David Tomassoni, a Chisholm Democrat, told KARE.
The highway is a main route for those travelling from Duluth to International Falls on the Canadian border, but locally it's a vital connection that ties together the four Iron Rangecommunities of Virginia, Eveleth, Mountain Iron and Gilbert.
"Highway 53 here is everything to us," Jim Downing, a retired miner told KARE.
"If the highway wasn't here we'd probably just shrink up right away, as a community."
The piece of four-lane freeway that must be vacated straddles a small section of land between United Taconite's active ore mine and the old Rouchleau Pit, an abandoned iron ore mine that is now filled with natural spring water.
The highway was built on private property, but the mining companies granted the state a free easement, allowing the road to be there at least 50 years. In 2010, the mining company notified the State that it needed the land back to mine it.
"The understanding at the time was that, when it became time for the mining companies to mine that area that the State would move the road at its cost," Sandy Karnowski of United Taconite, a division of Cliffs Natural Resources, told KARE.
"And, as you can see here, United Taconite has moved as close as we can," she added, pointing to the sheer wall of the massive mining pit, which lies 300 feet from the highway.
The mining operation is a near to the highway as it can be, based on existing regulations and the need to do blasting on a regular basis.
The Minnesota Dept. of Transportation, or MnDOT,has been meeting with community groups for the past year to gather input on a set of alternative routes.
The agency is studying all of the possible replacement highway designs as part of drafting an Environmental Impact Statement required by the federal government for moving a highway.
Roberta Dwyer, the MnDOT engineer leading the effort to design a new route, told KARE it's a very unique situation.
"Whether you look at it from having to relocate the road for mining, or whether you look at it from the construction angle, or impacts on the community, this is far from being a typical highway project," Dwyer told KARE.
She said the project budget is tentatively set at $60 million, but that will vary depending on which relocation route Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle eventually selects.
The draft Environmental Impact Statement should be formally published in the late springof 2014. Zelle will issue his decision on the preferred route aftera public hearing and comment period.
Design and construction is slated to start in mid 2015, so it can be completed in 2017 when the area becomes part of the United Taconite mine, which stretches between Eveleth and Virginia.
For Iron Range lawmakers the cost of the project is justified by the importance of that section of Highway 53 to the local economy, and the mining jobs that will be saved or addedby expanding the pit.
"There's a ripple effect that happens all through the economy when we lose jobs, and these are good paying jobs," Sen. Tomassoni explained.
"These are not minimum wage type jobs."
One alternative would be for MnDOT to leave the highway where it is and simply purchase the mineral rights for the land under the roadway, but that would cost far more than building a new highway.
It would also preclude going after the taconite ore in that area, and the jobs that go along with that.
"For us it was never about trying to convince the mining company to not want to dig there," Rep. Jason Metsa, a Virginia Democrat, told KARE.
"The entire community's supportive of moving this road."
Karnowski noted that much of the steel in household appliances and cars made in the US begins as raw taconite ore on the Iron Range, which is another reason to extend the life of the mine.
One option created an uproar in this part of the Iron Range.
Known as the "westerly route" it would've run Highway 53 to the west of Eveleth and connected to Highway 169 on the west side of Virginia. For some people living south of the mine, a two-mile trip to downtown Virginia would've become a 20-mile trip.
"Everything here ties to Highway 53 form the east and west," Charlie Baribeau, a retired pharmacist and longtime Virginia City Council member told KARE.
"It's a main artery to get to all the businesses."
Baribeau said it wasn't just a matter of retailers and other businesses losing commercial traffic, but said it would make it tougher to get patients to the emergency room at Essentia Health, the main hospital in the Virginia area, in time to save them.
"You need a window to start medications and get the patients treated, but it would take our ambulance services in this area an extra 30 to 40 minutes to get people on the east end of the Range."
Baribeau was among the citizens who met many times with MnDOT's Dwyer and others for more than a year, until the agency dropped the westerly route from its options.
The remaining options would all keep Highway 53 close to its current alignment, so the issue of added miles an inconvenience has for the most part disappeared.
One option, known as M-1, would send the road right over the United Taconite active mine. But the footprint of that road would be much wider than just the width of the four-lane.
The mining company has stated it prefers to remain neutral on the routing options, but has made it clear that the M-1 route could shorten the life of the mine because it would restrict the movement of trucks.
The most visually stunning of the options, known as E-2, would span two sides of the old Rouchleau Pit with a high bridge. It would cross the pit at point where the water is 150 deep, and the bridge would be 125 above the surface of the water.
"The E-2, or the large bridge, would be the highest bridge in Minnesota," Dwyer remarked, adding that it would probably cost more than $60 million to build the route.
Thealternative that appears to have the most support at this point is known as the E-1A option. It would also cross the Rouchleau Pit, but at a point where the water is shallower.
In fact, that option would rely on draining part of the pit and building up the earth into a land bridge. MnDOT has already drilled rock samples under that area to make sure it doesn't become tempting as a new mining location in the future.
"The goal at this point is to make sure we don't have to move the road again," Dwyer remarked.
"Nobody here wants to see their children or grandchildren go through another relocation 50 years from now."
Local auto dealer Kerry Waschke Collie said the land bridge option seems to be the most appealing choice at this point.
Her family-owned companyinvested nearly one million dollars renovating the dealership in Virginia several years ago after being assured the "westerly route" wouldn't become a reality.
But when that route reappeared on MnDOT's list of options, Waschke Collie joined thecommunity effort to convince the state to take it off the table.
She said she appreciates MnDOT's efforts to listen to business owners and others who would be affected.
"The schools depend on running buses on that section, and we have instructors at the community college that move from one campus to the other throughout the day," she said.
Either way, she said that section of Highway 53needs to be replaced once it's removed.
"Our traffic flow here depends on that access, and our business depends on that access."
The tourist attraction known as Mine View in the Sky, which offers a panoramic view of the mine, the city of Virginia and the old Rouchleau pit, will also be taken down when United Taconite expands its mining operation.
When we met Jim Downing, the retired miner, he was at Mine View in the Sky with one of his grandsons, showing him the MN-TAC mine on the horizon.
"That's where I was for almost 40 years," Downing said.
And while he recognizes the role Highway 53 has played, he fully supports the rationale behind moving it.
"If the ore underneath that highway means a lot of jobs, I believe they should get at it."