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Highways 197 and 71: Construction for 2010 nears completion

Progress is clear as work continues on U.S. Highway 71 south Wednesday afternoon. The 2010 phase of the project is scheduled to be finished Oct. 7. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

An unusually rainy summer has slowed the reconstruction of the state Highway 197-U.S. Highway 71 project, but the work for this year is almost finished.

"We plan to have it completely open to traffic by Oct. 7," said Larry Randall, project supervisor.

He said the original date was the third week in September.

"Overall, they are behind schedule - it could be worse," he said.

The unseasonal amount of precipitation, 24 inches throughout the summer according to Randall's measurements, caused difficulties with the loamy and clay soils south of Bemidji. Bemidji itself has sandier soil.

"Sand will give up the moisture very readily," he said.

The prime contractor is Knife River, which put on an accelerated schedule for the project of six-day weeks and 10-hour days.

"They're working dark to dark, and there was a stretch there when they were working seven days," Randall said.

He said the much-needed reconstruction of the highways, which date back to the 1960s, will result in a five-lane undivided section - two lanes in each direction plus a center left turn lane - from the intersection near Lueken's Food Village South to near Calvary Lutheran Church. From there heading south to County Road 2 (North Plantagenet Road), the highway will transition to divided four lanes and then to two lanes. For the last approximately 1.5 miles to the Hubbard County Road 9 intersection the highway will be three lanes - one lane in each direction plus a center turning lane.

There also will be a divided bridge across U.S. Highway 2, the southbound traffic using the bridge now in place and northbound traffic using a new span. All except one of the piers for the new bridge is finished, and Randall said workers hope to have the beams installed still this fall. There will be a break in the work over the winter with the new bridge scheduled to open in June 15, 2011. The current bridge, which will carry the southbound lanes, will be renovated with new expansion joints, approach panels and concrete wear course on the decking. The entrance ramp to U.S. Highway 2 will also be redone, Randall said.

The city of Bemidji incorporated replacement of utilities with the highway reconstruction.

Randall said the $12 million project is funded with federal money, but not stimulus funds.

Randall said Minnesota Department of Transportation tries to minimize the disruption road work causes. For example, Knife River had to close some cross streets such as the roads into the Bemidji Industrial Park, but also had to leave at least one way for traffic to enter the area, and the accelerated phase of the work was held off until after the July 4 weekend.

The detour around the work at the south end of the project was lifted Sept. 15 when that section of Highway 71 opened.

"People don't realize the amount of traffic on 71 until they're detoured by their house," Randall said.