Tragic fatalities ultimately lead to safer roadway
Oberstar, Hwy. 53 task force members fete interchange completion
Mesabi Daily News Saturday, August 13th, 2005 11:30:06 PM
MOUNTAIN IRON — The journey to the current multi-million-dollar U.S. Highway 53 renovation
began, as U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar paraphrased the old Chinese proverb on Saturday, with a single phone call to him one summer evening in 1996.
It was from Britt resident Kim Stokes, who, along with her child, had just witnessed a horrendous
accident on a two-lane section of U.S. 53 in the residential Donnywood area of the highway northwest of Virginia. A vehicle with two father-son duos and a semi-tractor-trailer truck had
collided, resulting in three persons killed and one injured.
“I was in the car behind them,’’ Stokes recalled Saturday of the stricken vehicle. “I saw them burn. You don’t forget that.’’
Shaken by the tragedy, Stokes said she asked Oberstar what could be done to prevent such
The stretch of highway in question included the Donnywood section, the notorious Hwy. 53
highway underpass below the DW&P railroad bridge and the Hwy. 169 intersection, that had claimed seven lives over the years.
Oberstar told listeners at a small gathering Saturday that he urged Stokes to get residents
together, form a task force, get a plan together and give a report on safety changes needed. A citizens safety task force formed that November stimulated some changes, leading to a long-term
highway task force.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony on the interchange ramp of U.S. 53 Saturday morning was followed by remarks by Oberstar and other officials at a get-together at the Mountain Iron Community Center.
Stokes said afterward that Minnesota Department of Transportation officials then told her no
changes were planned for 20 years. But she felt something needed to be done after what she had seen.
Oberstar Saturday praised citizen Hwy. 53 task force members for their dedication and efforts, and that he responds to efforts from his constituents. “Thank you for your persistence,’’ he told
Stokes and other task force members present. He also proposed that a plaque honoring all those who lost their lives in the stretch of Hwy. 53 be put up on the interchange, so they are not forgotten.
The Congressman, who is the highest ranking Democrat on the U.S. House transportation committee, said he was told in the time after that fatal accident there just weren’t the dollars available for the project for a four-lane highway to International Falls.
About $1.5 million for some turn lanes and signs was found first. Then, under urging from the citizens task force, long-term safety and economic considerations were advanced, along with officials from Virginia, Cook, Orr and International Falls on the roadway urging expansion. Under
the “Falls to the Falls’’ trade corridor initiative (Chippewa Falls, Wis., or Eau Claire and I-94, to
International Falls) under earlier federal transportation bills, funds to build the new $14.1 million Hwy. 53-169 interchange advanced.
The project was started because of safety, but also for economic development, jobs, and the region’s hopes, Oberstar said. The funds secured for the four-lane expansion of Hwy. 53 to Cook,
including the $50 million included in the highway bill signed this month, are to utilize products
made in America, and to employ local trade labor: “That’s what this is all about,’’ he explained.
It is also to build infrastructure to help keep younger people interested in jobs and careers on the Range. “What are we going to have up here if we don’t have transportation?” the Chisholm Congressman asked. “This is an investment in our future.’’
Oberstar told the audience he was asked by a Twin Cities TV reporter why $50 million was allocated to a northern Minnesota road. He told the reporter about the jobs, safety and future of the region, and also said that of all the road fatalities in outstate Minnesota, 40 percent were persons from the Twin Cities. In thesame bill, he helped guide through $50 million for the conversion of the St. Paul Union Depot to a multi-modal transit hub, $25 million for Twin Cities
bike/recreation trails, and other funds previously to the high-speed, light-rail Twin Cities commuter
He had a message for Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Lt. Gov. Carol Molneau, who handles MnDOT:
Either they match the federal transportation funding allocated to the state, “or Minnesota’s going to be sending money back to the Highway Trust Fund.’’ He added that under former Gov. Jesse Ventura, that did happen.
The Congressman described the conference committee tussles and cuts that shaped the bill just passed, and that President Bush congratulated him at the signing last week about the bill “they’’ just completed work on.
One of his conference committee objectives, in determining the 45 percent in non-state projects
Democrats could prioritize (the GOP determined 55 percent) in the $286 billion highway bill, was in “choke points,’’ that can hold up rapid distribution of products and goods.
One example Oberstar highlighted was Chicago: Container ships come into the Los Angeles area ports because they can’t fit through the Panama Canal to the East Coast. It costs about $300 and some days per container to move one from L.A. to the Chicago area, and several hundred dollars
and several days from there to the East Coast; but it costs several hundred dollars and several days just to move the container a few miles through Chicago, Oberstar said.
Earlier, St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman praised Oberstar and all his work on the
highway bill on behalf of the state and region. With the new interchange and section of highway open, “there are people that’ll be alive,’’ he said.