A grand bridge to Virginia

unitedtac.jpg This is a view of the United Taconite taconite mine at Eveleth. Much of the landscape surrounding Eveleth has been altered by decades of mining. Under a new plan, that landscape will be altered yet again.

Imagine: a beautiful, high, four-lane bridge spanning an Iron Range taconite mine on the way to the city of Virginia. That’s one option for moving Highway 53, which has to go to make room for taconite mining. And it’s the option area State Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, wants to see.

State transportation officials are holding meetings to offer Virginia area residents various options to move this busy route. Cliff’s Natural Resources United Taconite Company of Eveleth, and RGGS Land and Minerals, hold mineral rights to the iron under the highway, and they’ve sent notice they intend to mine it.

The current highway is a divided four-lane affair that takes traffic from Duluth up to Virginia and eventually, as a two-lane road, all the way to International Falls.


But business tends to drift to the nearest busy highway, and that’s certainly the case in Virginia, where Highway 53 now rolls within a busy business corridor including a major local grocery store, hotels, restaurants and the city’s shopping mall.

It’s one thing to move the highway — and no little thing that — but quite another to return traffic to the retail area, or somehow move businesses to the traffic.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has offered more than half a dozen alternative routes for Highway 53. One would take it west, completely around the other side of Eveleth before rejoining its current route somewhere in Virginia. Another goes east, around Virginia on its other side.

There’s also an option to leave it in place and purchase the mineral rights. But transportation officials say that iron ore is worth so much it’s cheaper to move the four-lane highway, despite the $60-million estimated cost.

Then there are the direct routes.Two options would just move the road a little chink to the left for a couple of miles — rejoining the current route before most of the businesses. Both routes would go right through United Taconite’s “Thunderbird” mining operation. Logically, the road would rise on a bridge over the mine — a spectacular view of the mine’s Auburn pit, one of Minnesota’s man-made taconite canyons.

Rukavina isn’t interested in a ponderous decision. He and three area legislators have introduced a bill to speed up the process and limit the options to those last two, the routes through today’s mining area.

As he told the Duluth News Tribune “people are going to be driving right through our own Grand Canyon of the north.” The bill requires a decision by mid-March 2015 to allow construction to begin by that June.

The bill was filed March 7th and so far has gone to the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. State Sen. Dave Tomassoni,(DFL-Chisolm, has filed a companion bill in the Senate.

And you know what? It sounds like a practical solution to a thorny problem. Bring on the bridge. It’s a nice drive now, although lacking much to look at beyond endless trees. A little bit of Grand Canyon would be a terrific addition.