Push for Highway 169 Reconstruction

By KBJR News 1

February 16, 2013 Updated Feb 16, 2013 at 12:12 AM CDT

Ely, MN (NNCNOW.COM) - For more than a decade now, concerned citizens have been pushing to make Highway 169 safer.

"I don't know if you can see with the trees up here, where they went off the road," said Highway 169 North Task Force Co-Chair, Bill Erzar as he walked a stretch of the road in the Eagles Nest Lake area where an accident had taken place.

Erzar has witnessed dozens of accidents off the stretch of Highway 169 from Tower to Ely, including three fatal accidents.

"It's something that kind of sticks with you," he said of seeing the accidents.

It was all the drive he needed to join a task force to help MnDOT determine which sections of the Highway 169 corridor needed the most help.

The task force started in 2000 and Erzar says today it has about a dozen members. They determined the Eagles Nest Lake area to be the most hazardous portion of the highway, particularly near mile markers 271 and 272.

Erzar says what makes the highway so dangerous is its sharp curves and narrow shoulders. When paired with ice and steep ditches, which are so often lined with trees, the road can be dangerous.

The MnDOT plan calls for straightening and flattening the road while make the shoulders wider

"We've looked at alignment much closer to the current alignment, with making some adjustments here and there," said Assistant District Engineer of MnDOT's construction program, Mike Tardy.

The project received major federal funding back in 2006, which paid for about 80-percent of the multimillion dollar plan.

The other twenty percent had to come from the state and with so many other critical road projects, MnDOT officials say that was hard to get.

"First we try to take care of those priorities and then reconstruction, like this up at the Eagle's Nest area, then we look for the twenty-percent state match. That's what took so long," Tardy said.

A meeting about the project this week brought out years of frustration.

"It's a stupid place to put a road, 100 years ago or whenever they did it," said a meeting attendee.

Others also expressed concerns over how long the project has taken.

MnDOT says that while the highway improvement is important, the accident data they've collected along the Eagles Nest area is no more than that of other rural, two-lane highways in the state.

Their data shows that the Eagles Nest segment of road has a 0.63 crash rate per million vehicle miles. The state average for two-lane rural highways in Minnesota is 0.60 per million vehicle miles.

People who drive the roadway, however, say that those numbers are skewed, because not every accident that takes place is reported.

The project would cost about $12 to $15 million.

It is scheduled to start in July of 2014.

Written for the web by Jennifer Austin.