The Minnesota Department of Transportation has narrowed down its options to relocate a mile-long section of Highway 53 between Virginia and Eveleth, including a route costing upwards of $60 million that would steer motorists over a new bridge spanning high across an abandoned mining pit.
MnDOT has released a large scoping document laying out four alternative options for the new highway route. The public has until April 4 to comment on the document. A public meeting will be held March 27 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Mountain Iron Community Center.
For over fifty years, the state has operated a short stretch of highway just south of Virginia on an easement granted by US Steel (now RGGS Land and Minerals Co.). But nearly two years ago, United Taconite, which is owned by the giant mining company Cliffs Natural Resources, told the state it intended to mine iron ore located underneath the highway that it owns the rights to, near the Mineview in the Sky overlook.
Minnesota does have the option to purchase the rights to the iron ore underneath the highway. But with an estimated price tag of $400 to $600 million dollars, that’s a longshot. More likely is one of two proposed realignments: one that would traverse part of the Auburn Pit, an area that’s been mined out of iron ore; or another that would travel around an old water-filled mine called the Rouchleau Pit. That option is estimated to cost up to $85 million.
Several Iron Range lawmakers like DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina of Virginia have long favored the route over the Auburn Pit. Last year Rukavina said if that route’s approved “people are going to be driving right through our own Grand Canyon of the north.”
It will stil be several years before drivers enjoy a new view, wherever it is. MnDOT isn’t required to have the new highway finished until the spring of 2017.