Sept. 10, 2008
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Duluth’s Miller Hill: Improving mobility in fast-growing commercial corridor

By Craig Wilkins

Controlled explosion at Hwy 53

Moments after detonation, a smoke plume rises through the blast cap during work to excavate a huge rock outcropping in the Miller Hill Corridor in Duluth. Photo by John Bray

Carefully controlled blasts occur regularly now in Duluth’s Miller Hill area, their noise and impact muffled by a huge, coiled nest of heavy truck tires.

The blasting, excavating and other work signal that reconstruction is underway along the busy and oft-congested Miller Trunk Highway, which includes parts of Hwy 53 and Hwy 194.

The $24.5 million project, seven years in the making, started this summer.

The three-year project focuses on a one-mile section of Hwy 53 between Haines Road, the city’s border with Hermantown, and Trinity Road.

The project partners, District 1, St. Louis County and the city of Duluth, share the planning and costs of the project. FHWA monies fund $18 million; project partners share the remaining costs.

3 people on construction site

As an excavated boulder thudded to the ground a short distance away, project staff reviewed plans for the reconstruction of Hwy 53 near Miller Hill in Duluth. From left are Roberta Dwyer, project manager; Jim Sorenson, project supervisor, and Krysten Saatela, a graduate engineer working in the land management section. Photo by John Bray

Roberta Dwyer, District 1 land management engineer, said the project will relieve congestion, ensure more orderly growth and improve connectivity among the web of city streets and county roads that cross or run parallel with the Miller Highway corridor.

Dwyer also serves as the project’s manager.

A boom in commercial and residential development drives the need for the project.

The growth is fueled by a strong regional economy and easy highway access from Interstate 35, the Iron Range and other regional communities. Shoppers also flock to the area from Michigan, Wisconsin and Canadian provinces.

The crest of the boom rolls down from Miller Hill, site of its namesake mall and other major stores, along the corridor.

New housing and specialty stores and services continue to proliferate. The highway brims with traffic.

The traffic flow, however, often eddies and pools from frequent highway tie-ups as it collects traffic from city streets, county highways, boulevards and access roads.

Trucks carrying heavy or over-sized loads from the Port of Duluth-Superior and headed west on Hwy 53 frequently rumble through, adding their cumbersome, slow-moving loads to the traffic mix.

Construction workers pouring bridge footings

Construction workers pour footings for a new bridge as they rebuild Hwy 53 in the Miller Hill corridor in Duluth. Environmental concerns are paramount in the area where nearly a score of streams, some of them alive with trout, roll down toward Lake Superior. Photo by John Bray

In addition to vehicular traffic, Dwyer said the comprehensive project will address the needs of area residents, shoppers and others who walk, use wheelchairs or use public transit.

“The corridor has a growing number of elders, people with disabilities and small children,” she said.

“We have often seen, for example, transit users waiting in the road for buses and elders having difficulty walking to the grocery store, especially in winter, due to a lack of sidewalks.”

The project addresses those issues, she said, by adding sidewalks, accessible transit stops and other facilities to promote mobility and safety.

Dwyer said the project will be completed by 2011.

“Our vision for the project calls for better traffic circulation and improved safety to meet the spiraling transportation needs of employers, retail stores, shippers, commuters, tourists and residents,” Dwyer said.  


New I-35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge to open to traffic during week of Sept. 15

By Kevin Gutknecht

New 35W bridge in-progress

At this point in mid-August, the new I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River is still a month shy from completion. The bridge is expected to open to traffic as early as Sept. 16, three months ahead of schedule. Photo by David Gonzalez

The Interstate 35W St. Anthony Falls Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis is scheduled to open to public traffic during the week of Sept. 15.

“Throughout the rebuilding process, we have kept the memories of the victims of last August’s bridge collapse in our thoughts and prayers,” Commissioner Tom Sorel said in a news release issued Sept. 9.

“This bridge has been built to the highest possible safety standards and is coming in ahead of schedule. We’re looking forward to seeing motorists using the new bridge next week,” he said.

The bridge is expected to open to traffic as early as Tuesday, Sept. 16. A news conference with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other officials will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 15, at the bridge to announce the specific opening time and other details.

Construction on the new I-35W bridge began on Nov. 1, 2007 and crews have worked around the clock since then. The project has employed extensive safety and quality inspection programs to ensure that the finished bridge will be high quality, safe and last for at least 100 years.

During the final week of construction, work crews will continue to:

  • Install and test anti-icing and smart bridge systems
  • Apply finish and stripe the bridge deck
  • Install roadway signs
  • Landscape areas along the corridor
  • Install and test traffic signals and lights
  • Clean up the site

“I-35W in Minneapolis is a major transportation artery for the Twin Cities and entire state. Each day this bridge has been closed it has cost road users more than $400 ,000,” Sorel said. “Area residents, business owners, motorists, workers and countless others have been affected by this corridor’s closure. The opening of this bridge reconnects our community.”

For more information about the new bridge, see


Mn/DOT evaluates safety of highways that drop from four to two lanes

In response to concerns about Highway 60 and Highway 14 in southwestern Minnesota, Mn/DOT has begun to evaluate the safety of similarly designed highways that drop from four to two lanes.

“We appreciate concerns expressed by the public and elected officials regarding Highway 60,” said Commissioner Tom Sorel. “We also recognize the need to look at the design continuity of all four- to two-lane sections statewide and develop a comprehensive approach for addressing safety concerns.”

Similar to the recent evaluation of Highway 60, Mn/DOT is reviewing crash history, traffic volumes and interregional connectivity to identify needs and potential for immediate safety enhancements for other roadways. On Highway 14, for example, most fatal accidents occur along two-lane stretches. Mn/DOT believes safety enhancements can reduce such crashes until more significant design improvements can be made.

Enhancements may include a range of safety applications such as rumble strips, new street lighting, innovative signing and educational Safe Community Coalitions.

“Implementing safety enhancements now will address problem areas while we continue to assess longer term needs and improvements,” Sorel said.

The enhancements are proven effective based on local and national studies as noted in the National Highway Cooperative Research Program Series 500 report. The report provides implementation guidance and expected crash reduction factors for safety enhancements like those proposed by Mn/DOT.


“Hear Every Voice” public participation guidance gets a makeover

By Donna Lindberg

Mn/DOT, in conjunction with the FHWA Minnesota Division and the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota, have developed an updated public participation guide, “Hear Every Voice II: Mn/DOT Public and Stakeholder Participation Guidance,” as well as a new public participation Web site and a training curriculum for project managers and other staff for use through spring 2009.

“The need to involve the public in transportation decisions is more important than ever,” said Commissioner Tom Sorel. “Stronger opposition to projects, larger projects with many partners and new ways of doing business provide challenges to effective public participation.”

Public participation is not new to Mn/DOT. For more than a decade, project managers and their teams have referred to “Hear Every Voice: A Guide to Public Involvement at Mn/DOT” to develop public involvement plans and strategies for implementing projects that affect the public.

“The original ‘Hear Every Voice’ is a valuable document that is still very relevant today,” said Nancy Yoo, director of the Design Services Section in the Office of Technical Support and HEV II project champion.

“Additions and improvements to the 1999 “Hear Every Voice” were needed in response to new requirements in the 2005 federal transportation reauthorization bill SAFETEA-LU for involving specific groups and individuals and for seeking public input during statewide planning,” she said.

“The ‘Hear Every Voice II’ training provides an opportunity for both internal and external partners to learn more about the Mn/DOT approach to public participation and ways to identify and balance stakeholder values and objectives during project development,” Yoo said. “The training is supported with online tools and resources to provide real-world implementation opportunities.”

“I believe an increased focus on public participation is vital to help Mn/DOT renew the confidence and trust of the public we serve and facilitate delivery of a transportation program that best meets their needs. The new ‘HEV II’ guidance will help us to do that,” Sorel said.

If you have questions about the “Hear Every Voice II” initiative or training, contact Scott Bradley 651-366-4612 or visit the “Hear Every Voice” Web site at  

The upcoming public participation workshops start this month and will be held at Mn/DOT's training facility in Shoreview, Minn. To register for a workshop go to: Call Norm Plasch at 651-366-4661 with additional training questions.


Boom punctures I-35 bridge in Owatonna

Bridge with hole punched in side

I-35 bridge over 26th Street NW in Owatonna
Photo by Dennis Iverson

The Interstate 35 bridge over 26th Street NW in Owatonna was damaged Sept. 8 when a boom on a flatbed truck carrying cement blocks hit a support beam, leaving a hole about a yard in diameter, according to Kristine Hernandez, District 6 public affairs coordinator.

One northbound lane of the freeway was closed briefly until District 6 bridge inspectors determined it was safe to resume traffic. However, the right shoulder will remain closed for four to six weeks while repairs are made to the beam.

The truck was traveling west on 26th Street when the boom punctured one of the six concrete beams supporting the overpass.

A police official noted: “The boom was a little high.”


Barbara Sundquist, former assistant commissioner, succumbs to cancer

Former Assistant Commissioner Barbara Sundquist, seen here in 1994, died Sept. 5 from cancer. File photo

Barbara Sundquist, a former Mn/DOT assistant commissioner, died Sept. 5 at her home in Ft. Myers, Fla., after a battle with cancer.

Sundquist retired from Mn/DOT in 1999 after a 43-year career in state government.

During her last 10 years with Mn/DOT, she served as an assistant commissioner in the roles of chief administrative officer and Finance and Administration division director.

Prior to joining Mn/DOT, Sundquist held a number of leadership positions with the state, including as commissioner of the Department of Employee Relations under Gov. Al Quie.

Sundquist was a past president and honorary life member of the International Personnel Management Association, as well as a long-time member of local, state and regional human resources associations.  

Sundquist is survived by her husband John. A memorial service is being planned for late October or early November in Ft. Myers.


Department reorganization takes shape

By Chris Joyce

More pieces of the department’s new organizational chart fell into place Sept. 9 when Commissioner Tom Sorel and his top staff briefed managers about the latest developments via videoconference. Previous reorganization decisions were announced July 14.

Sorel said that the decisions were based on feedback and discussion on how Mn/DOT could build better “transparency and trust with our stakeholders and make the agency more accessible to all people.”

A key role in achieving that goal is the creation of a transportation ombudsman, said Sorel, who appointed Deb Ledvina to the position. The ombudsman will focus on external issues and have the responsibility for independently investigating complaints and determining whether the department’s decision making may have been unreasonable, unfair, arbitrary or improper. However, the ombudsman will not be involved with routine processes already handled by other areas of Mn/DOT.

“This position will serve as the conscience of the department,” Sorel said.

Betsy Parker was named as Mn/DOT’s chief counsel. Her position will be the focal point of legal activities in the department and will work closely with the Attorney General’s Office, which will continue to represent Mn/DOT in legal matters. The department’s data practices functions and legal services staff (who handle contested cases and rulemaking activities) will now report to the chief counsel.

Other appointments and office changes announced yesterday include:

Commissioner/Deputy Commissioner Office

  • Appointed Kevin Gutknecht, director of the Office of Communications
  • Changed the Office of Finance to Financial Management, which reports to Kevin Gray, Mn/DOT’s chief finance officer. Financial Management will now have three sections: Traditional and Innovative Finance, headed by Brad Larsen; Budget and Resource Management, headed by Norman Foster, and Finance, headed by Scott Peterson.

Policy, Safety and Strategic Initiatives Division

  • Appointed Nick Thompson, director of the Office of Policy Analysis, Research and Innovation
  • Appointed Ginny Crowson, director of the Office of External Partnering
  • Appointed Sue Groth, state traffic engineer and director of the Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology
  • Renamed the Office of Materials to Materials and Road Research and moved it from the Engineering Services Division. Keith Shannon will continue to serve as office director.

Employee and Corporate Services Division

  • Renamed the Office of Decision Support to the Office of Information and Technology Services    

Operations Division

  • Appointed Scott McBride, district engineer for Metro District

The latest organization chart is available on Mn/DOT's Web site at:

Briefing offers opportunity to test desktop Web conferencing

The reorganization announcements were not the only new thing on the table Sept. 9.

The commissioner and top staff delivered their news using both traditional videoconferencing and a new Web conferencing technology, which allowed registered users to view the videoconference on their office computers. Thirty-five people participated in the meeting from their desks testing the software, said John Rindal, Office of Information and Technology Services.

Web conferencing is a set of tools that allows two or more people anywhere in the world to interact, meet and collaborate in real time over the Internet right from their desks. Commissioner Tom Sorel used Web conferencing at the FHWA and is encouraging Mn/DOT to adopt this technology.

Reviews of the test were extremely positive, Rindal said. The department is currently evaluating Web conferencing options and will be offering this type of service in the near future.


Viewpoint: Images of the I-35W bridge collapse give State Fair visitors reason to pause

By Craig Wilkins, Office of Communications

Craig Wilkins

Craig Wilkins
Photo by David Gonzalez

Semi-circles of State Fair visitors formed and reformed as they gathered to view a photo of the fallen Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

The photo (actually several overlapping digital images) was displayed at the fair’s Art Building among whimsical sculptures, colorful abstract paintings and a patchwork of posters celebrating Minnesota’s county fairs.

But it was the full-color image of the collapsed bridge that caused people to stop, collect in small groups and look for long periods of time.

I watched people gather again and again to observe the images. The visitors stood back several feet as they viewed the arresting images. There was little talk among them. Some viewers stayed for several minutes, barely moving.

I wondered what they were thinking. I wanted to ask them, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to intrude on their privacy.

For me, the bridge collapse and the marvel of its replacement has been a transforming set of experiences.  

If the purpose of art is to help us grasp the texture and depth of events and emotion in our lives, I believe the photographer succeeded.

I’m certain that the images helped visitors recall their own experiences with the bridge.

And I hope the photo connected them with the many others whose lives changed in some way when the bridge fell.

It certainly did for me.

Editor's note: Have a viewpoint to share? Commentaries are welcome from Mn/DOT employees on topics of departmentwide interest. Your viewpoint should be brief (300-400 words), and relate to the business of Mn/DOT. See the Submissions guide for more information.

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