Impact uncertain after human remains found at Twin Ports Interchange project

13 July 2023

DULUTH The Twin Ports Interchange Project is on track to open Interstate 35 to traffic in both directions on permanent pavement in November.

At a public meeting June 26, project manager Pete Marthaler said other milestones on the horizon include “substantial completion” of the project, which he defined for the News Tribune as largely unimpeded traffic, in fall 2024 and final completion in fall 2025.

While progress on the $435 million project continues, uncertainty surrounding the February discovery of a possible Indigenous human bone at the U.S. Highway 53 bridge construction site remains.

Work on the Highway 53 bridge and the interchange on Garfield Avenue began in August after being deferred due to financial constraints. A financial boost from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law breathed new life into that aspect of the project.

However, construction on the Highway 53 bridge hit a snag when Indigenous remains were discovered on-site in February. MnDOT is still evaluating the impact of that discovery, according to Marthaler. In the meantime, the construction team is continuing to work on unaffected parts of the bridge.

I live here, so it’s like watching your kid grow up. When you see it every day you don’t really notice the progress, but when one of us is gone for a week on vacation, you definitely notice how much change happens in a week.

“We relocated the major parts of the construction to a different part of that alignment, and started building the bridge from uphill down,” Marthaler said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to minimize the overall impacts to the schedule, but we just don’t have them fully quantified yet.”

Dylan Goetsch, field investigator for the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, declined to comment on the situation.

Another complication in construction has been dealing with contaminants in the soil, such as asbestos and lead, left behind from the demolition of neighborhoods to build the original Highway 53 bridge in the 1970s, according to Marthaler. “It’s very indicative of the land use prior to building the freeway,” he said.

The possibility of finding contaminated soil was anticipated by the project planners, though Marthaler said the extent of contamination has been less than expected.

When it comes to asbestos, he said the material has to be handled by a trained contractor. They load the asbestos-laden soil in a truck and cover it in plastic so the particles don’t blow away in transit.

The construction team also discovered contaminated groundwater. They pump all ground water through their own treatment system, which removes the sediment to which many contaminants are bound.

“Some contaminants don’t work that way, and the next step that we did is we discharged it to WLSSD, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, and then we paid them to treat it again and to remove those contaminants that we couldn’t with our treatment system,” Marthaler said.

Despite those challenges, dry weather since early May has benefited construction. “Warm, dry weather is always helpful because you get a full day of work as opposed to trying to deal with mud or get shut down because it’s raining,” Marthaler said.

When the project wraps up in 2025, local streets will be reconstructed after being subjected to heavier traffic from detours. Garfield Avenue, for example, has sustained five times the amount of traffic it had prior to when the Twin Ports Interchange Project broke ground, according to Marthaler. Therefore, he continues to encourage drivers to take the Bong Bridge detour to minimize congestion and impact on the road.

“I live here, so it’s like watching your kid grow up,” he said. “When you see it every day you don’t really notice the progress, but when one of us is gone for a week on vacation, you definitely notice how much change happens in a week.”

I-35 lane closures

I-35 will close in both directions beginning at 9 p.m. July 20 and will reopen at 5 a.m. July 21, according to a MnDOT press release.

Northbound traffic will detour following the Bong Bridge into Superior, then I-535 back into Duluth. Southbound traffic will exit at Fifth Avenue West and Lake Avenue to follow city streets.

Marthaler said a full closure of the freeway is planned in order to work on a bridge that will connect U.S. Highway 53 to I-35.

Traffic on the southbound side of Interstate 35, between Garfield Avenue and 27th Avenue West, was placed in a “two-way, single-lane configuration” from Monday through 3 p.m. Friday, according to a MnDOT press release.

This story was updated at 9:45 a.m. July 13 to include details about lane closures July 20. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. July 11.


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