Between Hwy. 53’s rock and hard place

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It’s been four years since owners of the Thunderbird iron mine near Virginia, Minn., told state officials they will have to move Hwy. 53 out of the way to allow expansion of their taconite extraction operation. The state is supposed to relocate the so-called Main Street of the Iron Range by 2017 under terms of a 1960 easement agreement, but the Department of Transportation announced last week that it almost certainly can’t meet the deadline.

Even now, no reroute decision has been made as engineers study options including bridging or filling in a 325-foot deep abandoned open pit as well as closing the highway for good (unlikely), buying out Cliffs Natural Resources’ multimillion-dollar mineral rights (less likely) and paving right through existing mine operations (opposed by Cliffs).

John Myers of Forum News Services detailed the latest turns in this strange drama last week. Engineering tests of the bridge plan alone are costing $4 million, and whatever alternative is chosen is likely to exceed the project’s $90 million budget, Myers reported. Only three-quarters of a mile of the four-lane highway is affected, but the reroute could stretch out much further. But one idea to skirt the highway far around Eveleth and Virginia was quickly scotched by opposition from roadside businesses.

Besides whisking general travelers between the Canadian border and Duluth, the highway gives hundreds of miners access to their workplace. Although the state hasn’t paid more than a token $1 to the mine operators for use of their land for the past half-century, Cliffs has richly benefitted, too. Now, it says that unless the highway moves to allow access to buried ore, the company will be forced to shut down its taconite plant.

Has there ever been a starker example of the relationship — part symbiotic, part adversarial — between private industry and public transportation infrastructure? It’s in everyone’s interests to find an affordable solution that preserves both the miners’ jobs and the travelers’ route. Highway 53 needs a path forward, not more postering and bickering.

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