Rice Lake Corridor Improvement Project aims to make road safer and more efficient

Improving the Rice Lake corridor

St. Louis County has developed a construction plan that would make Rice Lake Road safer and more efficient.

With over 10,000 vehicles traveling on it a day, Rice Lake Road is a route of regional significance.

“It’s important to our region. You think about ways to get to the Iron Range, particularly the East Iron Range. This is the only way to get there,” said St. Louis County Traffic Engineer Victor Lund. “Rice Lake Road turns into Vermillion Trail. In order to get directly to the eastern range, this is the only road that does it. You can do it on Highway 53, but then you have to go further west and across some other highways up there.”

Built in the 1970s, Rice Lake Road has several problems that both the city and St. Louis County hope to fix.

“The current problems that we have right now are definitely the congestion at peak hours. We have traffic that is backed up for a long way. People are sitting and it’s also hard to get off and on Rice Lake Road,” explained Rice Lake Mayor Suzanne Herstad. “There are certain intersections where you have to wait for a gap just to get your vehicle in, and it’s not a very safe method to try to get out onto Rice Lake Road. Speed is a factor and access points. A lot of businesses have come to Rice Lake wondering, ‘why can’t we get a driveway?’ And it’s partially tied up with traffic concerns.”

According to Lund, there have been conversations about redesigning Rice Lake Road for years.

“It goes back to 2013. The first study that was done in the project was done by our local planning organization, the Duluth Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council. They looked at about eight different intersections across the Duluth area, looking specifically at potential intersections for roundabouts, and it recommended a roundabout at the intersection, of Rice Lake and Martin. So that’s 2013,” explained Lund. “It was kind of put out there to the public, kind of see what the public would digest. We just kind of let it be for some time. About 2018 is kind of when this project started picking up again.”

Lund added that development near the intersection of Rice Lake Road and Martin Road had challenges that drew more attention to the needs of the road.

“One of the challenges for the need for the project is Rice Lake Road is what’s referred to as a controlled access corridor. What that means is that there’s a cap on the number of access points that are available, and so there were maxed out for access points in this project area,” explained Lund. “The development couldn’t gain access directly from Rice Lake Road. They would have to build another street, come off of Martin Road, or something like that. And so that got us having those conversations with the City of Rice Lake. They became incorporated in 2015, I believe. So we started having conversations with the city about starting a more robust planning effort on the Rice Lake Road corridor.”

The planning process was paused in 2019 before picking back up in 2021, this time with a push from the city. Detailed intersection studies revealed the portions of the road where construction is needed. This included a recommendation for two roundabouts, one at the intersection of Rice Lake Road and Martin Road, and the other at the intersection of Rice Lake Road and West Calvary Road.

RELATED: Why roundabouts are safer for drivers and pedestrians

“Once we figured out the intersections that two of them were going to be roundabouts, we then started planning out the actual road corridor in terms of its cross-section section, building out new city street connections, thinking about trails, separated pave trails, repaired bike connections,” recalled Lund. “And from there, it kind of just grew to the point where today we have what we would consider a base layout of the entire project.”

The Metropolitan Interstate Council is the transportation planning agency for the greater Duluth-Superior area. Bicycle-Pedestrian Planner Prescott Morrill said that he has “been hearing loud and clear from people in our community that they would like to walk and bike more often as part of their everyday routines, and the infrastructure needs to feel safer and be more convenient to be able to do that.”

Prescott added that the shared-use path that is part of this project will help to address this demand.

Mike Hendrikson owns Destination Fitness, which is located off Rice Lake Road. He is one of many business owners who is supportive of the Rice Lake Corridor Project.

“In the mornings, especially when kids are getting picked up from school and people are making their morning commute, it is a little bit tough to get out of our entrance and so or exit at that point,” said Hendrikson. “It’s not nearly as efficient or convenient as we would like our customers at.”

Mayor Herstad also supports the plan, saying that it will help bring more businesses to Rice Lake.

“We have a lot of businesses that are interested in relocating to Rice Lake, and they have been meeting with the city. We’ve got that interest right now, bringing those businesses in,” said Herstad. “That commercial business is so important to establish that tax base within our city. It will hopefully look like a downtown for Rice Lake, and this corridor is essential because it will allow those businesses to have safe access to Rice Lake Road or onto Martin Martin Road and they can get on and off safely. Traffic volume is expected to increase a lot, and so we need to have the ability to move that traffic in and out safely with reasonable speeds and take those people to where they need to go.”

Although plans are in the works and the project is gaining momentum, funding is needed. The project is estimated to cost $40.1 million. St. Louis County is submitting an application for a $25 million federal RAISE grant within the next two weeks. The county will find out in June if the grant is awarded for this project. If it is, construction can start as soon as 2028.