169 project clears more hurdles

by Tom Coombe -

Three major milestones have been reached and the Highway 169 project between Ely and Soudan is moving closer to construction.
Bids were opened Nov. 18 and a Wisconsin firm - Hoffman Construction - was the apparent low bidder to improve about six miles of roadway in the Six Mile Lake and Eagles Nest Lake areas.
But in a progress report released Monday, local task force chairman Bill Erzar cautioned that the bid had not yet been awarded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and that agency officials must still give the bid final review.
Erzar said that two other key hurdles have been cleared, including the award of a permit from the U.S. Corps of Engineers, and the recipt of the last right of way agreement on the last parcel for highway alignment on the west end of the project.
“We are finally seeing some progress to get this safety improvement project to construction,” said Erzar.
Construction on the estimated $19 million project is scheduled to begin in 2017 and continue into the following year.
That’s nearly 20 years after the project was first proposed by local officials, who formed the regional task force and successfully lobbied the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who secured federal funding in 2005.
The project has had numerous hiccups and false starts, with federal funding, state matching money, route selection and environmental concerns prompting one delay after another.
The most recent delays revolved around plans to mitigate sulfide rock - a delay that even MnDOT officials characterized as “unique.”
The rock mitigation plan delayed the award of construction bids from August until November, which effectively moved construction into 2017.
Earlier in the year, MnDOT presented a mitigation plan that resulted from 728 test samples, which showed varying degrees of sulfide content.
According to project manager Michael Kalnbach, MnDOT will mitigate where needed at a higher standard than recommended, which “has been agreeable to all parties involved.”
The work between Ely and Soudan is expected to create more passing opportunities, improve sight lines and overall safety, according to MnDOT.
But task force officials say that years of delays have resulted in “less bang for the buck,” with dedicated passing lanes and wider shoulders among the items that have been eliminated from the project since it was first planned.