No thanks to MnDOT, accidents continue to wreak havoc on 169

ELY ECHO EDITORIAL

If you’ve heard the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” or remember seeing the character “Not Me” in the Family Circle cartoons, then you understand how many feel about the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The lack of progress and the continual finger pointing by the state agency on the Highway 169 project is befuddling.
The efforts to get funding to fix Hwy. 169 started in 1997. Not by MnDOT mind you, by ordinary citizens and locally elected officials. They went to now-deceased U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar and asked for his help to get funding to fix the road.
In 2005 Oberstar was able to get over $20 million to fix Highway 169. This money was immediately sent to MnDOT’s back burner where it simmered for almost a decade. The fiddler was playing but no one was dancing.
By the time MnDOT was able to squeeze in spending $20 million of federal funding, the monies were worth much less and the amount of work that could be done was severely limited. The main section of road to be fixed, from Robinson Lake to the Murray Road remains as it was in 1997, except in much worse condition.
Black ice still develops every winter because the road was built to the north of a long hillside and receives no sun in the morning. Shoulders are nearly non-existent and slopes off the road are better suited for mountain goats.
We know Rome wasn’t built in a day but this is getting ridiculous.
We’ve heard from MnDOT that the problem is in Washington D.C. with the federal government. Specifically, that crash data makes for a difficult sell to federal officials. You can almost see the Not Me character walking around MnDOT offices.
The idea that 169 isn’t a deadly stretch of road between Ely and Tower holds no water with those who have been paying attention. The problem is MnDOT does a lousy job tracking accidents that occur on state highways.
Records kept by the citizen-run Highway 169 task force show since 1997 there have been 98 vehicles involved in accidents with 42 injuries and nine fatalities. MnDOT’s numbers are much lower. If it wasn’t entered into the state’s computer, the accident never happened.
After MnDOT’s meeting in Virginia (comical as it was to have MnDOT officials unwilling to drive 169 to meet with the public), we’ve heard the agency’s broken record one more time.
The problem is in Washington? If that’s the case why hasn’t anyone from MnDOT picked up the phone and talked to Rep. Nolan? Are we to assume MnDOT is incapable of communicating concerns from northern Minnesota to D.C.?
Agency officials have also again said the feds have raised concerns over “rock mitigation.” Apparently this is not an issue for the new road into the Lake Vermilion State Park, which is adjacent to 169. And, MnDOT can’t claim ignorance since the agency will be overseeing the paving of that road.
And as local officials have pointed out, if the fear of disturbing rocks was enough to stop any project   “we wouldn’t build any roads in St. Louis County.”
Apparently MnDOT isn’t really interested in getting this project done. Instead of pushing forward they push the project back. Instead of overcoming federal roadblocks, they place blame instead of accepting responsibility.  
In the meantime, accidents will continue to happen and more lives will be lost. Nero and Not Me would be proud.