EAGLES NEST TWP – A parade of cars was escorted on the newly constructed six-mile portion of Highway 169 last week. The sneak preview was the much-anticipated conclusion to a ribbon-cutting event …
EAGLES NEST TWP – A parade of cars was escorted on the newly constructed six-mile portion of Highway 169 last week. The sneak preview was the much-anticipated conclusion to a ribbon-cutting event ceremoniously held to signify the completion of the 21-year battle to improve the highway between Ely and Tower.
The new section was opened to traffic earlier this week as final paving and striping are completed over the next couple of weeks.
As stakeholders and local residents gathered at Eagles Nest Town Hall for the last update meeting conducted by Minnesota Department of Transportation officials, one reaction seemed to be repeated over and over, “Wow, what a view.”
Rising above the treetops of the surrounding landscape, travelers are able to see several miles in all directions. “Wait until the fall color season,” said Highway 169 Task Force member Bill Erzar. “The view will be spectacular.”
As many as 40 people attended the ribbon-cuttinglast Thursday on the west end of the new roadway that rises above and through ledge rock on the south side of the existing potion of highway.
“We are finally able to breathe.” That’s how Ely City Council member Paul Kess described the decades-long process to improve the road that connects Ely with Tower.
The six- mile stretch of highway between Six Mile Lake Road and Eagles Nest is the last portion of the $17 million realignment project. MnDOT District 1 Project Manager Michael Kalnbach said the entire project should be completed by mid-July.
At a brief ceremony preceding the roadway tour and update meeting, Kess and other speakers hailed the work of the Highway 169 Task Force, founded by Rudy Semeja, Bill Erzar, Pete Davis and others who persistently worked to advance the project. “We held our breath and the whole time the task force just kept working,” Kess said.
MnDOT Regional Engineer Duane Hill conceded that it took citizen persistence for the state to go through with long-sought improvements to the highway. “They pressured MnDOT and they pressured MnDOT and they pressured MnDOT,” said Hill said. “This wouldn’t have happened without all of their efforts.”
For more than two decades, the project was delayed, first because of funding and later because of sulfide rock environmental and pollution concerns, as well as disagreement over route selection.
Kalnbach has presided over several resident update meetings at Eagles Nest as construction work progressed. “I had not been on the new route until today. It is simply beautiful coming through there,” he said. “Once the construction is done and the machines are out of the way, we will be able to see a long way.”
He reported that the project was near 90-percent completed. “All the rock has been blasted and the excavation is complete. Final paving is under way. We have some cleanup to do in the ditches, striping and some signage to complete,” he said.
Final paving on the east end of the project is also being done and is scheduled to be completed by the end of June, according to Kalnbach. Traffic switched onto the new section earlier this week. Work will continue under traffic during the final work. The contract completion date is July 20.
The existing roadway from the cell tower to the east end will be abandoned by MnDOT. “Over the winter, we talked with the Mesabi Bike Trail folks and St. Louis County on what is going to happen,” Kalnbach said. “That segment will be turned over to the county. As part of our construction plan, on that portion we will remove half of the pavement and mill and leave the other half, and then that will be paved for a bike trail at some point.”
According to MnDOT District 1 Construction Supervisor Dan Squires, the bike path could be paved by mid-August. “The trail will cross Highway 169 at the east end of the woods (new construction) section and go through DNR property up to Trygg Road and eventually all the way to Ely,” Squires said.
A gravel road will allow access to the cell tower on the west end of the new section, Squires said. “It will not be open to the public.”
Erzar noted that the new road will reduce many of the safety hazards, like S-curves that led to numerous crashes, and shaded areas that contributed to black ice conditions in the winter. There are more passing lanes for those drivers who prefer to drive faster than others.
He also solemnly paid tribute to those who lost their lives or suffered serious injuries on the highway. “To me, this is more about those people than anyone else,” he said.
County Com-missioner Tom Rukavina was a also a proponent of the Highway 169 improvement project during his tenure in the state legislature. “I am heartened that common sense finally prevailed,” he said. “There was a time the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) actually suggested using heating coils to thaw the black ice.”