Truck route summit convened in city

MARQUETTE – Spurred by Rio Tinto’s plans to begin hauling ore through the city of Marquette, local officials gathered Monday to discuss how to best handle the increased truck traffic.

“Short-term, we really don’t have any alternatives when it comes down to it,” Marquette Township Treasurer Ernie Johnson told the group, which included representatives from the Marquette Township Board and the city commission. “It’s there. It’s going to happen. They’re going to be hauling.”

Under the Rio Tinto plan, trucks transporting ore from the Eagle Mine to the Humboldt Mill will travel along Marquette County Road 550 and into the city. From there, the trucks will travel down Sugarloaf Avenue and onto Wright Street, before heading into Marquette Township and onto U.S. 41.

The final rejection of the proposed Marquette County Road 595 – which Rio Tinto was planning to use as a haul road – came in December, when the DEQ announced it would not issue a permit for the road, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency refused to remove an objection.

Monday morning, the group, which included representatives from the Marquette County Board, the Marquette County Road Commission and Negaunee Township, discussed improving a city intersection to be more pedestrian-friendly and touched on the concept of rerouting other truck traffic through the city.

City Commissioner Sara Cambensy voiced concern over safety issues at the Wright Street-Sugarloaf Avenue intersection, near the campus of Northern Michigan University. There, mine trucks would turn west onto Wright Street, before heading toward U.S. 41. Officials have estimated that each day, 50 Rio Tinto trucks will make the round trip between the company’s Eagle Mine and the processing facilities at the Humboldt Mill.

Art Gischia, NMU’s senior associate vice president for administration, told the group the university supports the mine operations, but added that NMU officials were also worried about the intersection, where students often cross to get to their vehicles or to classes at the Jacobetti Complex.

“From our perspective, it’s a safety issue,” Gischia said. “That amount of extra truck traffic coming through that community is something that we need to be very cognizant of.”

Gischia said the new NMU heating plant – partially fueled by biomass – would add five to seven trucks per day when operating at peak capacity, but said the university would “do everything in our power to stop the truck traffic from coming through that intersection without some improvements there.”

The group also expressed safety concerns related to the Wright Street intersection with U.S. 41, an area in the township that sees approximately 36,000 vehicles daily.

Marquette Township Supervisor Dennis Liimatta said his board would support Rio Tinto’s use of the Wright Street-to-U.S. 41 route. But the township, he said, would ask that the city help lower the density of truck traffic by allowing south- or east-bound trucks to utilize city streets.

“Our biggest concern is making sure the north-south route – McClellan Avenue, identified as the city’s north-south truck route – remains a viable option for trucks going south or going east out of town,” he said.

Township Manager Randy Girard echoed those statements.

“The trucks are going to specific locations. Some are going south and east,” he said. “It makes no sense for them to come out west in Marquette Township and then come back through the corridor.”

In April of 2009, the city commission approved a resolution designating McClellan Avenue, from Fair Avenue to U.S. 41, as a truck route. The resolution stipulates that the McClellan Avenue extension, which was completed in 2012, will serve as a truck route from Fair Avenue to Wright Street.

Three members of the county board were present and the group expressed hope that the city and township could reach an amicable agreement related to truck routes. Board Chairman Gerry Corkin said the group understood the safety concerns involved.

“We put all our efforts into 595,” he said. “And it’s pretty clear why we did.”

County Commissioner Deb Pellow refuted claims that Rio Tinto was unwilling to help the municipalities work through road issues and expressed surprise that anyone should be surprised about the company’s planned route.

“We’ve spent five years … looking at the 595 road, knowing that if we couldn’t get the 595 road in, the alternative was the existing roads,” she said. “To say that Rio Tinto hasn’t been involved, to say that we have not tried to get an alternative done, is really not a very straight-up answer to that.

“It’s unfortunate that some people that are here today weren’t as strong of a voice as they should have been on the 595 road.”

The road commission last month approved a contract with Rio Tinto under which the company would fund upgrades to three existing Marquette County roads – 550, 510 and Triple A – along the haul route.

The company is funding $44.4 million in work and construction is set to begin this spring.

Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.