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Mega relief coming for Duluth commuters

Construction crews put the finishing touches on one of the new overpasses on Interstate 35 in Duluth recently. After two seasons of construction stretching through Duluth, the Minnesota Department of Transportation says traffic flow will be restored to normal on Oct. 29. (Clint Austin /

Motorists, rejoice! After two years of lane closures, reduced speed limits and traffic backups, Interstate 35 will soon flow unfettered through Duluth.

"Traffic is expected to be in its normal traffic lanes with no restrictions starting on Oct. 29," Minnesota Department of Transportation project supervisor James Sorenson said this week.

An average of 31,000 vehicles travel I-35 in Duluth every day, and one of those belongs to Joe Mayasich.

Mayasich commutes every work day from his home in Cloquet to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District plant in Duluth's Lincoln Park. He said the construction project has been a two-year hassle, but a manageable one.

"I just completely avoided using the freeway. I found alternative routes and stayed away,'' said Mayasich, who figures those alternative routes cost him about 15 extra minutes each way. That was still faster than sitting in sometimes stop-and-go traffic on I-35 in West Duluth.

But Mayasich, who drives his Moto Guzzi motorcycle as much as possible, said finding new routes wasn't so bad compared to traffic gridlock he encountered living in Washington, D.C., and New Jersey.

"You just plan ahead and deal with it,'' he said.

Dave Chrysler, sales manager at Duluth Lawn and Sport on Grand Avenue in West Duluth, a road that saw a huge bump in traffic that usually drove on I-35, said the store saw a noticeable increase in business.

"Especially last year, and especially for some of the hand-held items and push mowers, but the big things, too, we saw an increase," Chrysler said. "There's no doubt that it helped. People saw what we had on display and came in.

"But it will also be nice to have traffic back to normal," he said. "We have a warehouse across the street and, if you needed something at 3 in the afternoon, forget it. We had guys trying to cross (Grand Avenue) in the skid steer waiting 20 minutes just to get across."

Among the finishing touches workers are doing on the Mega Project are final paving, installing guard rails, putting dirt behind curbs and in traffic barriers, painting lane markers, installing signs and sealing bridge decks.

"It takes time and different operations to get all these things done, but we are getting there," Minnesota Department of Transportation project manager Roberta Dwyer said.

Among the changes motorists saw Monday were the opening of exit ramps from northbound I-35 to Cody Street, eastbound U.S. Highway 2 and 40th Avenue West, and the entrance ramp from 40th Avenue West to northbound I-35.

The entrance ramp from Cody Street to southbound I-35 is scheduled to open this week. And lane changes for southbound traffic will happen soon in the area between the "can of worms" at 21st Avenue East and 40th Avenue West.

Though the total cost

hasn't been tallied, Dwyer expects the two-year I-35 Duluth Mega Project to come in close to the original bid price of $66.8 million.

The oldest sections of I-35 in Duluth were nearing 40 years old when the Mega Project began. The highway was completed from the south to Mesaba Avenue in November 1971. Construction of the I-35 extension between Mesaba and 26th Avenue East was begun in 1985. The segment between Mesaba and Lake avenues was completed in October 1987; the segment between Lake and 10th Avenue East opened in November 1989. The grand opening to 26th Avenue East, the final stretch, was on Oct. 28, 1992.

The Mega Project divided I-35 into three segments between Boundary Avenue and 26th Avenue East:

  • Between Boundary and Central Avenue, workers repaired the pavement.
  • Between Garfield Avenue and 26th Avenue East, pavement and joints were repaired to give the roadway another 20 years of life, Dwyer said.
  • The project's main focus was between Central and Garfield Avenues.

    "Everything in that area is essentially new," Dwyer said. "We have the new bridge at the (New Page) paper mill, two new bridges at the ore docks, all new pavement, all new ramps."

    In 2009, then-MnDOT spokesman John Bray warned motorists that 2010 and 2011 would be "traffic Armageddon" on I-35 with lanes and ramps closed.

    The project, however, went "incredibly well," Dwyer said.

    "Our contractors have been very well-organized and put a priority on keeping traffic moving and keeping the project on schedule," she said.

    And MnDOT heard far fewer motorists concerns than expected.

    "Everyone has done a great job of adjusting their work schedules, allowing extra time, finding alternate routes, using the DTA," Dwyer said. "The motoring public deserves a lot of thanks for their patience."

    All didn't go as planned.

    The state budget impasse this summer shut the project down for about three weeks. In response, contractors concentrated on the roadway and other items directly affecting traffic when they resumed work.

    "We will have more work than anticipated next year, but most of that will be off the roadway," Dwyer said.

    Next year's finishing work includes installing some traffic barriers and bridge painting.

    Dwyer cautions drivers to remain vigilant as the Mega Project finally winds down.

    "There will be a lot of traffic switches," she said. "Ramps will be opening, barriers will be picked up. We'll be putting traffic in different configurations as we finish up these pieces -- so be cautious."

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