The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is now paying for a decision it made nearly a half century ago. Back then, MnDOT decided to save some time and money by cutting a deal with the local mining companies to lease the stretch of land leading into Virginia instead of buying it outright.
For five decades it was a great deal for MnDOT. The state got free use of the land while the property owners focused on iron deposits that were bigger and richer than the low-grade taconite under all the asphalt.
Now, however, the older mines are all played out and the taconite under the highway through the state’s Iron Range is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and mining it could extend the life of an operation that employs 514 people.
But there’s a problem, rerouting the four-lane highway is not going to be easy. Hwy. 53 links Duluth to International Falls and it binds the Quad Cities of the Iron Range — Virginia, Eveleth, Gilbert, and Mountain Iron — together.
Shutting down the highway could kill several businesses in the area.
“You sever that, you cut me off,” said Bill Aho, who owns a Super 8 Motel in Eveleth and an AmericInn Lodge in Virginia, just off the highway on opposite sides of the future mine site. Like others in the region, he’s been waiting and worrying over the highway relocation for years. Without Hwy. 53, he said, “We would be shut off. It would be devastating.”
To make matters worse, MnDOT only has until 2017 to come up with a solution.
“If it was easy, or clear, we would have already made a decision. But it’s not,” said Patrick Huston, MnDOT’s Hwy. 53 project director. “It’s a tremendous challenge.”
MnDOT is currently weighing its options which range from building the tallest bridge in Minnesota over some of the hardest rock on the planet to letting the highway dead-end at the mine. The state could also opt to ignore the situation, but that would likely result in a lawsuit from the landowners.
None of MnDOT’s options are ideal, and none of them are cheap. Right now all MnDOT can do is pick the lesser of all evils.