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Getting down to business on Highway 61

Local government representatives are preparing to do some serious lobbying of the federal government for funding to improve the Highway 61 corridor along the North Shore.

Built in the 1920s, the two-lane highway is a major transport and tourism artery that connects Canada with the Midwest. It wasn't built for the heavy loads and high traffic it carries today, said Lake County highway engineer Al Goodman, and that poses safety hazards as well as having economic impacts.

Officials from Lake County, Beaver Bay, Silver Bay, Two Harbors, local townships, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and two Cook County commissioners met at the Beaver Bay Community Center last month to strategize. Called the Highway 61 Corridor Committee, they hope to influence federal transportation legislation for funding of projects in 2010-2016.

MnDOT just doesn't have the money in the budget for the highway, said Goodman in a phone interview after the meeting.

He told how the late Lake County commissioner Clair Nelson used to say that Trunk Highway 61 was MnDOT's piggy bank. Projects to improve the highway have been on the books for years, but keep getting shelved in favor of other pressing needs throughout the state. Money for maintenance on the state's 60-year-old Interstate Highway System, such as highways 35 and 53, has taken precedence.

"It's a job half done between Two Harbors and Grand Marais," said Goodman. "It's unacceptably incomplete. People have been spoiled by the sections that have been done...Beautiful work."

Statistics show that on some of the redone sections, accidents have been cut in half, he said. The new 10-foot shoulders give drivers on the narrow highway a place to go--saving lives, cutting down on injuries and reducing property damage.

There are six segments of the road in Lake County that are overdue for reconstruction.

Given the realities of funding, the group would like to begin with a focus on two projects--the section between Beaver Bay and Silver Bay, and the section between Two Harbors and the Silver Cliff tunnel.

In the past, the county did all the lobbying. The strategy now is to combine lobbying efforts across all the local units of government, giving more weight to their multi-million-dollar requests.

The cities of Silver Bay and Beaver Bay, and possibly Crystal Bay Township, will take the lead on lobbying for the first project, and the City of Two Harbors and the Township of Silver Creek the second. The county and the other units of government will all throw their support behind the projects they prioritized.

"Those two projects are absolutely critical for safety, especially because of all the turnouts, hills and blind corners," said Lake County commissioner Paul Bergman.

Because of sewer system issues, the timeline for the second stretch is further out, however, he said.

Planning and zoning administrator Matt Huddleston said if the road is widened, the small lot sizes between the road and the lake and the road and the ridge may be a problem for owners trying to locate septic mounds. There is also the possibility of a future sewage pipeline to take into account and the need to allow space for the Gitchi-Gami biking and walking trail.

The third project under consideration by the corridor committee for funding requests would be the section of highway between the two tunnels.

The new strategy means that any county and city projects that these local units of government would have sought federal dollars for will be set aside in favor of their joint effort on Highway 61.

Goodman said they weren't just asking for funding to benefit only North Shore residents. The highway provides access to many attractions drawing tourists from Canada, the Twin Cities and throughout the country.

Among the destinations are numerous state parks and state forest campgrounds, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the North Shore Hiking Trail, Gitchi-Gami Trail, snowmobile, ATV and kayaking trails, and the safe harbors and marinas being built along the shore.

In some areas, the design work and right of way acquisition has already been done. Reconstruction of the highway would involve engineering for subgrade corrections to provide a base that could handle today's heavy loads.

That work would support a seven- to eight-inch slab of blacktop which would be good for 20 years. Looking beyond that, the top two inches eventually could be milled off and replaced with another three inches of bituminous that would be good for another 20 years. Maintenance involving simple overlays doesn't even last five years, said Goodman.

He said the meeting seemed to have energized the corridor group, and the elected officials in attendance seemed positive about the approach.

The federal 2010-2016 transportation bill will be drafted in early 2009, with the votes taken later that year. Eighth District U.S. Representative James Oberstar, chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, will be authoring the bill.

Comments from local officials and formal governmental resolutions can influence the priorities taken up in the bill. One or more county commissioners are planning to attend the Transportation Alliance Fly-In again in Washington, D.C., next March, but Bergman suggested that they consider getting to the table earlier in the year to have more impact on the legislation.

The corridor committee will be meeting again this month to firm up their plans. Oberstar will be in the area Oct. 31, and officials from the committee will be meeting with him to share their comments and ideas on local transportation needs.

"Each one of us knows someone who has died on that road," said Goodman. The only memorial for them is to improve it, he said.