When is Grand Forks going to get a new interchange along Interstate-29?

The short answer: someday — assuming the city keeps on expanding like it has for decades. The long answer is a little more complicated.

Grand Forks currently has no scheduled plans to build a new interchange along I-29, despite plenty of talk in recent years about the possibility of a new set of ramps at 47th Avenue South. There’s still plenty of interest in the project, though, especially as traffic along 32nd Avenue South gets heavier and the city’s southernmost neighborhood continues to grow.

“I’d love to see the actual interchange go in. But for me, it’s dependent on a lot of things,” Grand Forks City Council President Dana Sande said.

In recent years, there’s also been plenty of talk about where the city will build a new south-end bridge over the Red River. And since it’s pragmatic to have the bridge and the interchange along the same street — much like DeMers Avenue and Gateway Drive do — Sande said settling the future of the bridge probably will have to come first.

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Sande, whose Sixth Ward includes much of the south end, said a new interchange is just one of many large-scale projects city leaders are weighing — alongside items like an underpass at 42nd Street and DeMers Avenue. Scrounging up funding is no easy feat, even now with the state’s new “Operation Prairie Dog” bill, which is expected to disburse $250 million in oil tax money for projects in communities around the state. Earl Haugen, executive director of the local metro planning organization, said it’s not a likely contributor to the project.

“(It) provides more money; however, (the state) prohibited it be used to retire debt,” he said. “So it would be challenging for that money to sit in the bank to build up to the amount for an interchange. There’s so many other needs.”

On top of that, Sande said, the city sales tax hike passed by local voters in 2017 is helping with “some” big projects.

“But for the most part, it’s being utilized to help keep the cost of local streets down for our taxpayers,” he said. City leaders had said at the time of the tax’s passage that it would generate $5 million a year and be used for water and road projects.

Federal funding for the project isn’t a given, either. As Haugen points out, state transportation officials are the gatekeeper for many federal funds, meaning Grand Forks’ needs compete against those around North Dakota. And, what’s more, leaders in Washington appear nowhere close to a grand bargain on a long-discussed infrastructure funding bill. President Donald Trump stormed out of a meeting with Democrats last month over frustrations with various investigations into his administration and business life.

And the project will need plenty of funding. Haugen’s estimate for the cost of a new interchange is $25 million. If that project waits until after 2030, it’s expected to cost about $40 million.

But the south end of Grand Forks continues to grow. According to Grand Forks Public Schools data, Discovery Elementary School — located firmly in the city’s southern reaches along 43rd Avenue South — has seen its enrollment grow by roughly 25 percent between September 2015 and September 2018, from 372 to 463.

City Engineer Al Grasser said the city is already set to weigh plans on how it will expand, with south end “trunk infrastructure” — that’s things like storm sewers and water pumps — probably coming before the City Council in the next few months. That paves the way for further development.

But the pace of growth is tempered by city land planning that foresees a different kind of expansion. Haugen said the city’s 2016 land use plan — which peers ahead through 2045 — foresees more “vertical” growth in the city’s future as it strives to build upward in places that already have expensive infrastructure like roads and sewers in place. That’s not to say the city won’t keep growing outward, Haugen said, but that Grand Forks might see less growth in the 47th Avenue South area than previously expected.

And there’s still a few years left before the interchange becomes a pressing necessity.

“It’s somewhere after the 2030 horizon is when we really see the need (for a new interchange), given our current growth that’s occurring,” Haugen said “We are growing physically south, but our population is not growing as fast as it was earlier this decade.”