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Traffic will be one lane on interstate

Beware, tourists and Shore residents: This summer's road-construction season is going to be a doozy.

Picture the morning rush hour from West Duluth and Proctor northbound into downtown Duluth on Interstate 35. Now picture that same rush hour, then cut the number of traffic lanes to one lane each way. Then picture Grandma's Marathon weekend with that kind of disruption.

Ouch.

It will be the biggest project since that section of the interstate -- from Boundary Avenue to Mesaba Avenue -- was built in Duluth in the late 1960s and early '70s, said MnDOT project manager Roberta Dwyer. And, while the interstate won't look terribly different when construction is finished, it is work that needs to be done. The interstate is at the end of its life.

In a nutshell, the $81 million project will provide a long-term fix to bridges, pavement, lights, signs and traffic barriers. Unused rail bridges will be removed. And, while they're at it, fiber optic lines will be installed to enhance emergency services and transportation systems. Although the project started last summer and won't be finished until 2012, this summer's planned work will likley slow traffic more than any other year.

Much of this summer's work targets the I-35 northbound lanes from Boundary Avenue to Garfield Avenue. The lanes will be closed completely, which means there will be two-way traffic on the southbound side from Boundary Avenue to Garfield Avenue May 3 through Oct. 22.

For a few weeks in July and August, there will be lane closures all the way to 26th Avenue East. From Garfield to London Road, northbound traffic will move back to the northbound side, but still with only one lane open. There will also be ramp closures from Boundary to Garfield Avenue.

"The freeway is backed up now at the peak hours between 7:30 and 8 a.m.," said Tom Elwell, Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) spokesperson. "Can you imagine what it will be like with one lane? I don't think people will realize [how much it will impact them] until it happens."

Commuters might not be fully cognizant of this summer's driving nightmare, but the folks at MnDOT and the DTA are completely aware -- and they've been working together to mitigate the disruption as much as possible.

Starting April 26, the DTA will establish four temporary park-and-ride lots on Grand Avenue and provide West Express buses between those parking lots and downtown Duluth during weekday peak hours.

Time to do it

While there are certainly more pothole-ridden roadways in the Duluth area, the I-35 "megaproject" is a project whose time has come.

Not only is the freeway nearing the end of its projected lifespan, but two bridges in that portion -- one near the paper mill, the other by the ore docks -- are what Dwyer calls "fracture critical."

"That means they have an element that is not redundant," he said. "So, if that element is damaged somehow, it could cause a bridge collapse, essentially."

The Duluth megaproject gets part of its funding from Chapter 152 state funds that the legislature set aside for fracture-critical bridges after the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse.

Don't look for any dramatic "before" and "after" photos. While two bridges will be entirely replaced and others repaired, the route isn't changing in any other substantial ways.

"The biggest change will be adjustments in profile," Dwyer said. "The long bridge on I-35 between the paper mill and Menard's has a big hump, because it was originally built over an active rail line (which isn't active anymore). We're taking that hump out."

Other changes include a new access road - across the street from Menard's - for Recycle Way and Colalillo Drive. All of the pavement from 46th Avenue West to the "Can of Worms" at Garfield Avenue will be replaced rather than simply repaired. Also, unused rail bridges near 27th Avenue West and 37th Avenue West will be taken down.

Another change is that the current barriers will be replaced with concrete barriers, Dwyer said.

"It is a huge project," he said. "We have a very aggressive time schedule to get it all done during construction season."

MnDOT is opening bids on the project April 2.

In 2011, MnDOT will work on the I-35 southbound lanes between Garfield Street and Boundary Avenue. The pavement-repair work between London Road and Garfield Avenue should be completed this summer, so the disruption won't be quite as extensive next year.

Visit www.dot.state.mn.us/duluthmegaproject/ to get more information.

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