East Grand Forks leaders wary of MnDOT road swap

A graphic provided to East Grand Forks city council members on Tuesday, July 23, shows the results of a Minnesota Department of Transportation proposal to transfer a stretch of DeMers Avenue to the state in exchange for a piece of Business Highway 2. The yellow line shows the stretch of DeMers that would be taken over by the state, and the red line shows the business highway, which would be taken over by the city. The blue dotted line is East Grand Forks' city limits. Submitted graphic.

East Grand Forks leaders cast a wary eye toward a proposed MnDOT road swap.

City Council members on Tuesday, Oct. 8, questioned a MnDOT planner about the state’s proposal to exchange 2.1-mile Business Highway 2, which the state owns, for a city-owned half-mile segment of DeMers Avenue from Fourth Street Northwest to Hwy. 2. Those who spoke were generally skeptical.

“I think, personally, taking over that 2.1 miles would be more of a liability than an asset to us,” said Ward 2 Council member Dale Helms as Mayor Steve Gander nodded. “It’s just going to cost us money, I think.”

If city leaders agree to the swap, they could opt to fix up the stretch of DeMers in exchange for the state doing the same to the business highway before the roadways change hands, a move that would presumably cost considerably more for MnDOT than it would for East Grand Forks. MnDOT Planning Director Darren Laesch told Council members that the business highway’s “service life” is running out.

Or Council members could make the exchange and take a one-time payment that they could spend to fix up or replace other roadways in town.


But exchanging one stretch of road for a longer one would presumably mean more maintenance costs, which range from day-to-day snow plowing and pothole filling to more expensive and longer-term work, such as mills and overlay and, eventually, outright replacement. Getting rid of that stretch of DeMers also would mean the city wouldn’t need to spend $225,000 to replace a pair of traffic lights there.

“There really are some pros and cons,” said Gander, who added that the “paranoid” side of him had a hard time seeing the upside to the deal. “I definitely can see the potential for a downside ... long-term cost-wise, but I’m having a little trouble seeing the upside.”

At-large Council member Marc DeMers floated an idea wherein the city would charge the businesses along that highway for improvements there and the city would spend the lump sum payment elsewhere. Gander said that “wouldn’t sit well” with him.

But Council members are still set to further entertain the state’s offer. The plan, then, is for city staff to speak to businesses along the business highway to see if they have any projects that might be impeded by the swap and attendant work on the road. They’ll also put together a mock assessment that would simulate DeMers’ idea.

East Grand Forks’ next work session is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 22.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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