K1150 BC-TQ-Oberstar-hears-abo 11-06 0815

Oberstar hears about safety issues on Highway 61


By Monica Isley

Lake County News-Chronicle, Two Harbors, Minn.



Nov. 6--A meeting room full of people showed up to lobby U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar for support in getting funds to reconstruct Highway 61 earlier than current schedules call for.

A coalition of North Shore governmental representatives and those from other interested groups met with Oberstar during his visit to Two Harbors last Friday.

"The county can’t lobby alone," Lake County commissioner Paul Bergman told Oberstar in opening remarks. "We’ve combined with other governmental units."

For over two hours, those in attendance, from both Lake and Cook counties, took turns explaining to Oberstar why the two-lane highway, the only connector along the shore, has become dangerous to drive. Some of the remarks bordered on the humorous, most were sobering. Oberstar took notes and asked questions as the meeting progressed.

"These hands-on reports are invaluable to me," Oberstar told the group.

While people talked, photos were passed to Oberstar and around the room showing blind intersections, areas with no shoulders, the lack of side striping--all things that make it difficult for urban drivers to maneuver in rural areas. And, Oberstar was told, it’s the urban drivers who are flocking to the North Shore.

While much reconstruction has already been in isolated segments of the route, many more aren’t on the list for completion until 2015. That is unacceptable, according to those who live, drive, and even make their living on that highway.

"Tourists love this road, but ambulance drivers don’t," said Silver Bay mayor Scott Johnson.


Mark Schlangen, who works on the rescue squad, said the lack of shoulders means they can’t work on accident victims, and they also have no way to reroute traffic, so secondary accidents become a problem.

A former state trooper told how he often raced to accident scenes with his siren and flashing lights off "so as not to force people into the ditch in an attempt to avoid me. Drastic improvements are needed."

Deputy sheriff Jerry Norberg said "you can’t get the full perspective of that road until you have to drive it at 90 miles an hour."

"Twin Cities people drive up here like they drive down there. They drive like idiots," he said. "The road design, road ruts, negative elevation--it’s all causing problems. We get a lot of calls along that road because of the number of homes there, and the sooner we get this highway done, the better for us and for the visitors.

"I can’t say how many times the helicopter has landed on Highway 61 and left empty because they don’t transport dead bodies."

A business owner along the route said she often deals with bicyclists who stop because they’re scared to go on, they’ve been nearly blown off the highway by passing vehicles and have no place to move to.

"A simple road overlay won’t help the lack of shoulders," she said. "Many bikers have told me they’ll never come back here, and I’ve seen a big decline in their numbers. Please consider our section for improvements."

County commissioner Tom Clifford spoke as a resident of the Little Marais area, and said that because areas on both sides of them have been improved, they are now in an unsafe bottle neck.


"We are four miles from the busiest rest stop on Highway 61, and yet our portion of the highway hasn’t been improved since 1925," he said.

Paul Jones of Tofte Township runs a wrecker service, and called himself "the guy who cleans up the messes."

"The accident stats only represent those that are reported," he said. "I’ve done quite well (financially) rolling cars over that have gone into the ditches."

He said that when emergency stops are required, people have no place to pull over. The shoulders aren’t wide enough, and are flanked by ditches that result in rollovers.

"It’s bad. It’s just plain bad," he said.

Other people spoke on behalf of the Gitchi Gami Trail, the bike trail that is slowly being extended along the shore as the road work is done, and for those who are waiting for sewer line to be installed, and believe it could best be handled at the same time the road is reconstructed.

Most of the presentations, however, involved the safety issues.

Although Oberstar made no promises, he did take notes and ask questions.


"You’ve certainly made the case--every one of you," he told the room full of people.


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(c) 2008, Lake County News-Chronicle, Two Harbors, Minn.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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