ISHPEMING - The Marquette County Road Commission is expected to make a decision later this month on proposed improvements to county roads 510, KAA and AAA for the Eagle Mine, which could include reducing the tree canopy and realigning the roadway.
The work to upgrade the road segments to an all-season standard is proposed to take place over a total of about 11 miles, including improving County Road 510 from County Road 550 south to County Road KAA, and from that intersection south and west across county roads KAA and AAA to the Champion-Michigamme township line.
The road work would end near the entrance of the Eagle Mine, which is owned by the Lundin Mining Corp. Nickel and copper production is expected to begin late next year and the company is largely funding the road improvements - and numerous others ongoing along County Road 550 - under a $44.4 million contract with the road commission. Some additional state grant funding was secured.
Trees line the sides of Marquette County Road 510, creating a canopy popular with fall color tourists. A proposed construction project over this section of the road could reduce or eliminate the canopy, which some members of the public oppose. (Journal photo by John Pepin)
The road commission meeting discussing the road work is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Ishpeming Township Hall on U.S. 41 West. The road commission held a public hearing on the proposed road work late last month.
Marquette County Road Commission Engineer-Manager James Iwanicki said the five-member road commission board could decide to approve the project as proposed or make alterations. The panel might also delay its decision if it decides more information is necessary to make an informed ruling, Iwanicki said.
Some area residents have expressed concerns over the project, including reducing or destroying the tree canopy. The route is popular for fall color touring.
"Clearing by Rio Tinto (Lundin) has already resulted in loss of tree canopy, blueberry bushes and other native foliage," Catherine Parker of Marquette said at the hearing. "Further widening of right-of-way to an anticipated 100 feet would essentially ruin the character of this backwoods area, negatively impacting tourism, outdoor recreation and weekend retreats."
A petition was being circulated with those signing asking the road commission to minimize the removal of trees and natural flora.
Iwanicki said road designers are seeking to construct a well-drained, easy to maintain route.
He said sunlight hitting the roadway is better for maintenance. He said under a canopy, road maintenance issues occur with more ice on the road.
"From an engineer's standpoint, having the canopy clear is a good thing," Iwanicki said. Efforts to preserve the tree canopy in the same area were previously successful when the Alger Delta Electric Cooperative buried new electric lines to the mine in response to public demand, rather than clear trees to erect utility poles.
During the public hearing and since, some members of the public have also expressed concerns over dramatically changing the alignment of the scenic, wooded roadway
Michael Sauer, a property owner along County Road AAA, attended the public hearing in Powell Township and later wrote a letter to the road commission.
"A plan was presented that focused on a paved Class A, 55-mph, year-round highway that could have 200-foot cuts from tree line to tree line that rarely overlapped with the current easements in place, for all intensive purposes, a brand new highway," Sauer wrote. "As a property owner along the AAA, I could not have been more shocked, but was even more frustrated in the fact that just after going public with the plan, that the Marquette County Road Commission was only giving a brief period for public review."
Sauer said if his property is condemned to realign the road, he will oppose it.
"I will be a hostile landowner and will fight the condemnation," Sauer wrote.
Parker said she also had concerns about the magnitude of the proposed improvements.
"The company that is paying for the changes will be a short-term presence on the Yellow Dog Plains. they have a need for an all-season trucking route, but not an expressway," Parker said. "It seems to me that a compromise could be made where clearing is minimized and speed of travel is limited to suit the landscape."
Iwanicki said the road would have a 55-mph speed limit, which would require a new alignment. A new alignment would also make construction and maintenance easier.
Iwanicki said the road commission panel's decision could approve a new road alignment, use the existing alignment or some new idea.
If the road commission approves the proposed $20.8 million project later this month, efforts to secure property for road right-of-way would begin soon afterward. Clearing of trees would also begin this fall and continue through the winter months, preparing for construction to begin next spring, Iwanicki said.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206.