Stakeholders set sights on Cross Range Expressway completion
Graphic courtesy of MnDOT
In Grand Rapids, Highway 169 crosses Highway 2 and continues northeast to terminate at Highway 53 in Virginia, touching many of the Range communities on the way. Dubbed the Cross Range Expressway, it has four lanes except for a nine mile stretch roughly between Scenic Highway 7 near Taconite and Highway 65 near Pengilly.
 
Starting with soil testing and survey mapping in May 2014, a tricky 1.5 mile stretch near Taconite was substantially completed last fall, with a bituminous paving layer, aggregate shouldering, permanent pavement marking and turf establishment remaining. That final part of the project will start in mid-May and finish in mid-June, according to Jeff Tillman, Minnesota Department of Transportation resident construction engineer.
 
With the completion of this segment, the Western Mesabi Mine Planning Board (WMMPB) has put upgrading the remaining two-lane section in its sights as a priority transportation item. 
 
Early this year, Itasca County and West Range communities applied for construction funds under a special pool of money created by the legislature and government in 2014 called Corridors of Commerce. The overall goals of the program are to increase highway capacity and efficiency and improve movement of freight and commerce.
 
For 2018, there is approximately $400 million available, split about evenly between the Metro and Greater Minnesota areas. Money comes primarily through the sale of trunk highway bonds.
 
It’s an unusual program; projects are put on the list entirely by citizens. Anyone could recommend projects to MnDOT by the application deadline of February. Each suggestion was evaluated and, if it met the eligibility requirements of the program, would be scored and ranked. With some exceptions, the projects will be funded starting with the highest score and continuing until the funds are used.
 
Almost 300 submissions were received by MnDOT before the deadline, although a number of them addressed the same road sections.
 
Four separate recommendations were made to address the two-lane section of Highway 169, said Karin Grandia, Itasca County Highway Engineer. One was to transition the entire nine miles to four lane, a second to do the eastern half, a third to do the western half and a fourth to do only safety upgrades. Another submitter also suggested the nine-mile upgrade. The projects received letters of support from the county, cities and townships along the route and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.
 
“It’s hard to get funding for a project statewide,” explained Leo Trunt, District 3 Itasca County commissioner and representative on the WMMPB. But if it’s true that a squeaky wheel gets attention, “we’re trying to squeak as hard as we can,” he said. 
 
In addition to ease of travel, Trunt pointed out that an improved road through the Range may draw business to those communities and help improve infrastructure if the Essar (now Mesabi Metallics) project reboot is successful.
 
All Hwy. 169 submissions have made it through the evaluation portion and are being scored now. Another recommendation submitted was to upgrade the section of Highway 2 between Grand Rapids and Cohasset, to add a fifth lane so both directions had two-lane travel. 
 
The complete list of scores and projects awarded funding should be available this month, according to Grandia. 
 
Scoring will be by criteria set up by the legislature, although MnDOT will assign scores. The criteria include return on investment, economic impact, freight efficiency, safety improvements, regional connections, policy objectives and community consensus. Another criteria, regional balance, will be the funding split between Metro and Greater Minnesota. 
 
Under the general criteria, MnDOT developed a way to determine scores, in some cases awarding all or no points depending on whether milestones were met, and in others using quantifiable data like number of crashes to apportion points.
Further information on the current Highway 169 project can be found at dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/hwy169-cross-range/. The Corridors of Commerce program is at dot.state.mn.us/corridorsofcommerce/index.html.