By Sylvia Wier
Two more phases in the U.S. Highway 53 project to replace and upgrade the road and related infrastructure in International Falls began recently.
“Overall, our schedule is going very good considering unforeseen things,” said Travis Hjelle, foreman for KGM Contractors of Angora.
Hjelle said adjustments needed to be made to water and sewer mains, work that couldn’t be fully anticipated until digging had begun. Contaminated materials also had to dealt with. He said KGM is “pushing hours to get it done,” and work is within a week of schedule.
Completion is set for October.
Construction work on the east half of the highway from 10th Street to 12th Street, as well as on the access road near County Road 7 started earlier this month. So- called Stage 5 of the project, which runs from Highway 11 to the border, also began with the removal of pavement.
The 2.1-mile, $17.3 million project remains on budget, said Margie Nelson, a public affairs coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Duluth.
Nelson said the project has been helped along by the dry weather, with very few rain days to cause delays. The two-year project was aided by the border closing with Canada due to Covid.
“The border issue made a difference,” she said. “There was less traffic for workers to deal with. “That was a positive for us, though not the community.”
Separately, a detour which allowed only side-road access to some businesses along the 53-construction route was lifted after about two months.
Sandy Netland, who owns the Voyageur Motel and Voyageur Restaurant along with her husband Jerald, said they saw a drop in business.
“It really made it harder to get in” the motel, she said. She said it was difficult to say how much sales declined this year in comparison to 2020 because sales last year were skewed by Covid restrictions.
Business “is picking up, especially at the motel,” she said, “though we’ve a long ways to go.”
Larry Morin, manager at O’Reilly Auto Parts, said his store was less affected by the work this year, though last summer it was a real “pain” for the shop when more extensive roadwork was done outside it.
International Falls Mayor Harley Droba said he knows businesses lost revenue due to the detour.
“I can sense there is frustration there,” he said. “It is horrible, necessary evil. Being a small business owner myself, I understand.”
The work, however, needed to be done and “it will be incredibly better once done,” he said.
Initial work on the project began in July 2020 and was suspended for the winter before resuming in May. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Nelson said only landscaping is scheduled to be done in 2022.
The project includes a new drainage and storm sewer system, a multi-use trail, new signaling and LED lighting. Trees, benches, information posts and two kiosks also will be added.
Highway 53 is 403 miles long with LaCrosse, Wis., and International Falls as its beginning and end points. The road runs through Eau Claire, Superior, Duluth and Virginia, among other towns.