MARQUETTE - Marquette County Road Commission officials expect upgrades for Rio Tinto's transportation route to begin this spring along County Road 550.
Road commission Engineer-Manager Jim Iwanicki said the total cost of upgrading county roads AAA, 510 and 550 is expected to range between $36 million and $40 million.
"Those roads are going to be improved to an all-season trucking standard so that we don't have to put weight restrictions on them in the spring," Iwanicki said.
Dan Blondeau, a communications and media relations adviser for Rio Tinto in Humboldt, said the mining company will fund the cost of the road improvements.
"The Marquette County Road Commission is not using taxpayer dollars to complete upgrades to Triple A, County Road 510 and County Road 550," Blondeau said. "The community will have improved roads that are funded by a private company."
The route for Rio Tinto to haul its ore from its nickel and copper Eagle Mine on the Yellow Dog Plains to the Humboldt Mill processing center was previously approved by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Trucks will move ore from the Mine along County Road AAA to County Road 510 and then County Road 550 to Marquette and then along Sugarloaf Avenue to Wright Street to County Road HQ to U.S. 41 to M-95 to County Road 601 to the mill.
The mining excavation operation reached the ore body last year and production at the facility is scheduled to begin in 2014.
Iwanicki said a detailed construction schedule and cost projection for the road work was still being worked out. In general, improvements to the Triple A road and County Road 550 are expected in 2014, along with work along County Road 550 to bridges over the Little Garlic River and Big Garlic River.
"Our intent is to upgrade all the bridges along County Road 550," Iwanicki said.
The road commission is still planning on removing three culverts from a branch of the Salmon Trout River, to be replaced with a bridge. That project - which was part of the remediation efforts planned for the now defunct County Road 595 project - needs approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the DEQ.
If the project is approved, a total of six bridges will built or improved along the entire transportation route.
Blondeau said traffic studies, based on the mine at full production, show Rio Tinto truck traffic will increase the current traffic by 4 to 6 percent along County Road 550, 2 to 3 percent along Wright Street in Marquette and 1 to 2 percent along U.S. 41.
"Rio Tinto will make 50 round trips between the mine and mill each day during peak production," Blondeau said.
The trucks will operate according to Michigan Department of Transportation guidelines. Some safety measures for the vehicles include electronic vehicle monitoring with global positioning satellite units to track location, speed, braking and other facets; driver training and drug testing; maintained equipment with pre-shift inspections; side dump trailers (no rear tailgate) to reduce noise; secured covers; truck washing prior to leaving the mine and mill and a contingency plan in place for accidents, with annual mock accident exercises held.
Blondeau said the city of Marquette has not expressed any recent plans to regulate the mine truck traffic outside current ordinances. He also said previous suggestions to potentially build a bypass for truck traffic around the city of Marquette are not currently being pursued.
"Right now, our discussions are for just existing roads," Blondeau said.
Iwanicki said the road commission approved a design and build team for either County Road 595 or the existing roads transportation route in December. With the County Road 595 project now dead, the team will now focus on the Rio Tinto trucking route.
"I'm currently working on finalizing the contract for that group to do the improvements," Iwanicki said.
The group is composed of four entities, including Payne and Dolan and Bacco Construction.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is email@example.com