Groundbreaking held for Highway 169: let the paving begin

by Tom Coombe -

Many trees have been cleared and the framework of a new road is clearly visible along Highway 169.
The next step in the two-decade quest to improve a 5.7-mile stretch of roadway came Thursday morning, as an assortment of lawmakers and local officials put shovels in the ground and formally started a project some two decades in the making.
The gathering along the Trygg Road was a celebration of sorts as major improvements begin in the Eagles Nest and Six Mile Lake areas of 169 between Ely and Soudan.
By the end of the 2018 construction season, 169 will be straighter and safer, according to state transportation officials.
That’s much to the delight of Ely area leaders, who have pressed since the late-1990s to make the project a reality.
“When I got up I had to pinch myself,” said Ely Mayor Chuck Novak. “Was I awake or was I dreaming that this project was finally coming to fruition.”
Novak was among a parade of speakers who hailed the efforts of a local task force (see related story ) that worked persistently, amid turnover in Minnesota Department of Transportation Staff and changes in elected leadership, to keep the project on the radar.
“I think we all know that this day was long in the making” said Duane Hill, district engineer for MnDOT.
The groundbreaking took place about a dozen years after the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar secured federal funding for the project, and 17 years after the formation of the 169 Task Force.
Delays linked to the procurement of state matching funds, environmental issues, route selection and rock excavation were finally cleared, and MnDOT last year announced a route and cleared the way for the project.
Tree clearing started in January and excavation and continued rock testing are ongoing. Wisconsin-based Hoffman Construction was awarded the contract for the project late last year, submitting a competitive bid of $16.5 million that came in about $2 million below engineers’ estimates.
Hills will be flattened and the alignment straightened along 169 in an effort to make the roadway safer.
MnDOT crash rates showed higher than average accident counts along the stretch and task force leader Bill Erzar identified the victims of several crashes, some fatal, along the highway.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke at Thursday’s ceremony and recounted her own memories of 169 from her youth, when she and her father - an Ely native - would visit family members here during the holiday season.
“We would drive up on Christmas afternoon and I remember that winding drive from Tower,” said Klobuchar, one of several lawmakers who backed the local task force’s efforts and their request for a southern realignment. “I remember coming around the corner and seeing the deer jump out at you.”
Improving safety conditions on 169 is paramount to the project, according to Klobuchar.
“It’s about the truck driver delivering goods in the middle of a blizzard, or the parent trying to get her kids home late at night,” said Klobuchar.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan was also present and said “it’s about safety.”
He credited one of his predecessors, the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who “initially led the charge and raised $20 million.”
Nolan lamented some of the recent delays, which were linked to environmental issues and the blasting of rock.
“If you had to get the EPA involved everytime you moved a rock, there wouldn’t be a road in northeastern Minnesota,” said Nolan.
Blasting will begin in June and motorists should expect delays, although the highway will remain open to traffic and will not be rerouted.
The project calls for complete reconstruction in segments that will be realigned, while other portions of the project route will be widened and resurfaced with improved sight lines.
Novak said there’s an economic component to the project as well.
“We’re going to get some progress as we try to grow the economy,” he said. “Ely is at the end of the road. We don’t have railways. This (highway) keeps our economy going.”
The project comes more than a decade after federal funds were earmarked for the project, and Novak noted some irony during his remarks, pointing out that the money was set aside the same time that Oberstar found federal funds for Ely’s joint public works garage.
“The garage has been up for 10 years with that money,” said Novak.
For 169 the end result, in July, 2018, will be a smoother and safer highway with improvements sought by the task force, but the project has been scaled back over time with plans for a passing lane scrapped and shoulders not as wide as initially planned..
Starting in May, MnDOT will hold monthly project update meetings at the Eagles Nest Town Hall.
More information about the project is available online at