As Grand Forks area officials seek final approval for a five-year update on their long-term transportation plan this December, they say it's becoming increasingly apparent federal and state aid can't keep up with local transportation needs.
As the Metropolitan Planning Organization for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks sought preliminary approval from both city councils last week, Executive Director Earl Haugen said there was actually more funding this time around than the last time his agency updated the 2045 Long Term Transportation plan, which forecasts available funding and necessary projects in the coming years. That's due to the "Fixing America's Surface Transportation" Act, or FAST, which prioritizes preserving existing roads and improving on transportation safety.
During the Grand Forks City Council meeting, Haugen said there's still not enough funding available federally and on the state level to address needs outside of projects that maintain existing roadways, including what he called "capacity expansion projects."
"We're talking about some intersection expansions, like at DeMers and Washington, 32nd Avenue and Washington," Haugen said. "Additional river crossings, some grade separations of the railroad, a new interchange or even a modification of existing interchanges."
The MPO forecast the cities will have access to $417 million in total, $266 million of which accounts for federal and state funding plus required local shares. Because the MPO only has the authority to recommend projects that receive state and federal funding, the organization did not make plans for that leftover funding.
Haugen said the MPO would be "pleased" to update the long-term transportation as more funding becomes available.
"There's a lot of discussion taking place at both state legislatures and also in Congress of trying to raise revenue for infrastructure," he said. "If those events happen we'll have to re-visit our plan, account for those increases in revenue and maybe identify more projects that can be done because we'd then have more revenue to do them."
Some projects Haugen planned to take place after 2023 included an approximately $5.3 million project to reconstruct of South Washington Street from Hammerling Avenue to Eighth Avenue South, and then another nearly $1.1 million project to construct the same road from Eighth Avenue South to DeMers Avenue. In the same time frame, the plan included a $6.5 million project to update traffic signals throughout town. Most of the funding would come from federal and state sources, with a smaller match from the city.
A new river crossing
The MPO has spent its time drafting an update to research five potential locations for a new bridge. The agency has been examining locations since the flood of 1997, Haugen said, and since 2004 it has focused its on 32nd Avenue South and Merrifield Road.
"This go-around, there was a change in council membership," Haugen said. "People didn't have as much history behind those decisions. So they asked us to do a fresh review with more locations."
Along with 32nd Avenue South and Merrifield, the MPO also studied 47th Avenue South, 17th Avenue South and Elks Drive. In the end, the data showed 32nd and Merrifield remaining the most cost-effective options. At the latest Grand Forks City Council meeting, members expressed a concern with that location. Council President Dana Sande even asked the MPO if it could somehow include more of a human aspect.
"We provided a lot of public input opportunity. We weren't really receiving a lot of public feedback," Haugen said. "The meetings weren't overly well attended."
There are still public hearings scheduled for December before MPO updates are supposed to take effect in January.
"I would say there's been more feedback against the other locations than there has been for 32nd," Haugen added. At recent meetings for wards 3, 4 and 5 he said people showed up to speak against the other three locations.
As Haugen and MPO officials have stated before, it's highly unlikely a bridge will go up within the next decade. However, he said it's important stakeholders like Grand Forks and East Grand Forks agree on one strong location.
"With agreement of these crossings, there's the ability to go after some earmark or special program funding to get them built," Haugen said. "If you don't have an agreement on where a crossing is and you're trying to get revenue for that crossing, not many people are willing to invest in a project that doesn't have a known location."