Detour option back on the table
Feds insist on exploring possibility as part of 169 upgrade analysis
Marshall Helmberger
file photo
A possible detour between Tower and Ely is back on the table as part of the review of proposed improvements to Hwy. 169.

REGIONAL— A possible months-long detour between Tower and Ely is back on the table, as part of the environmental review of a proposed Hwy. 169 upgrade in the Eagles Nest area.

While MnDOT officials had previously agreed to explore upgrades without the use of a detour, project manager Michael Kalnbach said federal highway officials, at a March 20 meeting, insisted that MnDOT include the possibility as part of its environmental analysis, or EA. Local officials in both Ely and Tower have strongly objected to the proposed detour, out of concern for the economic impact and inconvenience to residents. But according to Kalnbach, federal highway officials believe that a detour-free upgrade within the existing alignment would cost more and result in greater environmental impact. The planned upgrade is financed primarily with federal dollars.

The detour option will be one of four alternatives examined as part of the EA. Those include a no-build option, a proposed southerly realignment, and two middle routes, including one constructed with the use of a detour, and one without.

A draft of that review should be headed to federal highway officials as early as next week, but it could be months before the public gets a look at the document.

The latest timeline reflects yet another delay in the project, and likely pushes back the start of construction until the summer of 2017, according to Kalnbach.

Assuming federal highway officials have the EA in hand this month, Kalnbach said he would expect to have their review back by June. Then MnDOT sends the report to other cooperating agencies, including the Minnesota DNR and Pollution Control Agency, and the federal Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency for further review.

Kalnbach said he now expects the report to be out for public comment in the fall, with the selection of a preferred alternative by December.

While the detour alternative is back on the table, it is unlikely that MnDOT would ultimately select the option, given the strong local opposition. But Kalnbach said federal officials did not want MnDOT to pre-determine the outcome of the process by eliminating alternatives before completing the review. Federal highway officials made similar arguments over the inclusion of the so-called “western alternative” on the controversial Hwy. 53 relocation in Virginia. Under intense pressure, the western option was eventually dropped from consideration.

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