At $6.1 million, it’s the most expensive project in what will be $64 million worth of improvement offerings beginning this spring.
“It was essentially built through a swamp for the vast majority of it,” Matt Hemmila, St. Louis County Public Works deputy director for engineering, said of County Road 29. “It doesn’t have a very strong base to it. If you were driving it, you were spilling your coffee.”
All told, 76 miles of county roads will be resurfaced and another 83 miles will receive preventative maintenance, with projects aimed at adding new coats of asphalt to still healthy roads. Another 25 miles of gravel roads will see attention, and there will be 14 bridge replacements.
A driver on Morris Thomas Road waits to turn onto U.S. Highway 2 on Sunday, April 11, 2021. St. Louis County will make the intersection safer this year – moving Morris Thomas so it intersects Highway 2 at a right angle and adding left-turn lanes to Highway 2. (Steve Kuchera / email@example.com)
The county maintains 3,000 miles of roads. Entering the construction campaign, only 12% of county-paved roads, or 180 miles, remained categorized as being in very poor condition, and a dwindling number of bridges, 51 of roughly 600, were considered deficient.
In the years following the June 2012 flood, which wreaked havoc on infrastructure, the county has refocused its attention to roads and bridges.
The county has used its 0.5% transportation sales tax, enacted in 2015, along with borrowing at low interest rates, as a formula to create robust annual construction programs running $50 million and more. The plan is to keep going that way through 2024.
“With all the money we’ve invested since the flood, it’s definitely getting much more difficult to find a really bad road,” Hemmila said. “We try to keep them in better shape than we used to.”
St. Louis County uses a 0.5% tax to help pay for highway projects. (Steve Kuchera / firstname.lastname@example.org)
Only $5.5 million of county road and bridge construction this year comes from the local tax levy. The rest is made up from $32 million in bonding and transportation sales tax funds, $11 million in state aid, $9 million in federal funds, $2 million in state bridge funds and $4 million from miscellaneous other partnerships.
What that money brings is a project such as the one slated for Morris Thomas Road — a twin safety and road improvement project that will restore 4.6 miles of pavement leading up to Haines Road, and correct the Morris Thomas intersection with U.S. Highway 2 in Hermantown, near the Adolph commercial center. A left-turn lane will be added on Highway 2.
“We’re rebuilding the first several hundred feet of Morris Thomas so it intersects at a right angle — right now it has that skewed angle,” Hemmila said.
The intersection has seen two T-bone, or right-angle, crashes since 2011 on vehicles attempting to cross there, and one rear-end crash on Highway 2, the sort of crash that ought to be corrected with the addition of a turn lane.
Eliminating the skewed intersection is expected to provide better visibility for drivers stopped on Morris Thomas, Hemmila said.
A partly built structure at the wayside rest at the mouth of the French River frames Lake Superior shoreline Sunday, April 11, 2021. When completed the wayside will include an overlook and historical interpretive displays. (Steve Kuchera / email@example.com)
Another project: the county will construct a 500-foot retaining wall at a turnout along the Lake Superior shoreline, just north of the McQuade Small Craft Harbor on North Shore Drive, or Scenic Highway 61.
“There’s been quite a bit of erosion and previous damage from storms,” Hemmila said. “We want to rebuild and protect that turnout.”
St. Louis County is responsible for the upkeep of several miles of North Shore Drive between the Duluth city limits and Lake County line.
Farther north from McQuade Harbor, the county will complete a project it started last year, when it replaced the bridge over the French River. The project is adjacent to the former fish hatchery. This year, work will rebuild the wayside rest, with architectural work, including an overlook, and the addition of historical interpretive displays.
Some other county highlights:
Resurfacing 4.8 miles of County Road 116 (Echo Trail) from County Road 88 to a half-mile north of County Road 803 (Passi Road). It’s a federally funded project originally scheduled for construction in 2022 that was accelerated using transportation sales tax bonding funds. The project also includes an additional 14.3 miles of road resurfacing in the Ely area.
Resurfacing of 7.2 miles of County Road 5 from 1.2 miles north of Trunk Highway 73 in Chisholm to County Road 81. It’s another federally funded project accelerated with extra bonded monies.
Bridge replacement on County Road 65 in downtown Side Lake. The bridge spans the Side Lake outlet to the Sturgeon River and is the waterway connecting Side Lake to Little Sturgeon Lake for boaters. Boaters go under the bridge, so it’s also being aesthetically enhanced in ways most bridges are not, Hemmila said.
Traffic will be detoured as the bridge is replaced.
“It’s kind of an interesting bridge,” Hemmila said. “It’s the connection between Side Lake, Little Sturgeon Lake and a whole chain of lakes. It’s historical, but covered in graffiti and in pretty bad shape. Because it’s one of the rare bridges people see from underneath, we’re doing a bit more aesthetic work on the abutments.”