Debate lingers on proposed 32nd Avenue bridge
Walking along the Greenway in the neighborhood where he lives with his family, Chad Wocken said it's hard to imagine, beyond all the snow and ice, a bridge over the Red River from 32nd Avenue South.
"When these neighborhoods were put in, it wasn't built to accommodate a bridge," said Wocken, who has lived in the neighborhood for 10 years. "If you think about 47th Avenue, and all the homes on those streets, none of them front 47th, they're all to the back. The road is wider."
Transportation officials compared Wocken's neighborhood to 47th Avenue South and three other locations last year in a report from the Metropolitan Planning Organization that researched the best place for a south-end bridge to East Grand Forks. In December, the MPO decided 32nd Avenue South is the area's top inner-city contender.
Even after the Grand Forks City Council voted 4-2 in December to approve the MPO's recommendation, residents are still actively engaged in discussions to re-evaluate the MPO's proposal.
"If we don't engage, then there's the presumption that we don't care," said Wocken. "But, of the same token, we've also been told there's no funding available for a bridge. And it's not like it'll be built in the immediate future."
MPO Director Earl Haugen said updating the plan's recommendations every five years is an important step in eventually securing construction funds.
"Without agreement on a bridge location it's a lot harder to seek funding for a bridge," Haugen said.
The MPO's study ultimately recommended building an inner-city bridge on 32nd and a second south-end county bridge on Merrifield Road, based on forecasted growth trends and a cost benefit analysis. This has consistently been the MPO's recommendation in every five-year update to its Long Range Transportation Plan since 2004.
The MPO has been researching a south-end bridge since the early 2000s to alleviate congestion near the region's three north-end bridges.
This was the first time in 14 years the MPO studied other potential locations.
When asked if the neighbors' concerns from December were making any impact on the group's 32nd Avenue South recommendation, Haugen wouldn't comment. However, he did say the MPO is considering ways to improve communication, after neighbors complained the transportation agency and the city of Grand Forks had failed to inform them of the study.
"I don't doubt that it was advertised, but I didn't personally receive anything," Wocken said. "Certainly, if there's a serious plan to stick a bridge in a neighborhood, there ought to be a deliberate attempt to reach out to those residents, and give them the opportunity to participate. And that didn't happen."
Since December, Haugen said communication has improved. The neighborhood asked him to hold an informative meeting on the background of the MPO's bridge study earlier this year, and Wocken said the neighborhood is looking forward to another meeting in the near future.
Michael Huot, another neighbor along 32nd Avenue South, said it's the public's responsibility to inform itself.
The MPO held a handful of public input meetings updating residents on its report before the council vote, and it also gathered comments via an online survey in early 2018.
"Just go to the MPO website, or the (Cities Area Transit) website, and you'll get the alerts about what's going on in meetings," Huot said. "You can stay informed quite easily, if you want to."
Unlike Wocken, Huot said he's not necessarily opposed to a bridge in his neighborhood.
"Opposed is a strong word. I'm not opposed to a bridge," he said. "I think we're in a situation right now where the community's in a win-or-lose situation. If it goes on Elks Drive, they lose (and) we win. If it goes on 32nd, we lose (and) they win. If it goes on 17th—you know, it's a lose-win situation, and I don't think it has to be that way."
Merrifield a potential solution
Both Huot and Wocken said they and their neighbors support the MPO's county bridge recommendation on Merrifield Road.
"It's a bridge location that's got more widespread support," Wocken said. "It's likely to alleviate some of the traffic problems were having in town, because it does create another option to cross the river."
Haugen said he has heard from neighbors who predict the county bridge could indeed help alleviate traffic if it is built first, so much that it would eliminate the need for an inner-city bridge on 32nd. Huot said that could additionally save the city plenty of dollars.
A low bridge on 32nd Avenue South would cost approximately $28 million to build, according to the MPO's report. On Merrifield, a low bridge could cost about $31 million.
"There seems to be a lot less consternation about the Merrifield bridge location, so the path of least resistance might have that going for it," Haugen said.
Some neighbors have discussed potentially using the county's authority to raise the mill levy to fund a bridge on Merrifield Road. Haugen said that increase could support a significant portion of construction costs.
"It would pay off a bond payment for 15, 20 years," he said. "And (it) could finance at least 50 percent of that (construction) cost."
County Administrator Tom Ford said the commission has not discussed raising the levy beyond the 7.75 mills it currently collects. The county can levy up to 10 mills.
"You know, that's so far down the road right now, as far as that bridge," said County Commissioner Bob Rost. "They were just looking for support (of the recommendation) from the county. No discussion has been made about money or anything at this point."
"Few people are ever going to advocate for increased taxes," said Wocken. "Personally, with all of this backdrop, if I knew there was an effort to support that bridge development on Merrifield Road I would probably be in favor."
East Grand Forks standpoint
East Grand Forks Mayor Steve Gander said both bridges -- a county and a “neighborhood” bridge, like the one being proposed for 32nd Avenue South -- will equally benefit both the Minnesota and North Dakota sides of the river.
Not only will a south-end bridge alleviate north-end congestion, it will reduce “needlessly” long commutes for residents living in south East Grand Forks and south Grand Forks, Gander said.
“If I live on the south end of East Grand Forks and I want to get to some destination on 32nd Avenue, my trip is anywhere from 3 to 4 miles longer than it should be,” Gander said.
Gander said any location between 13th Avenue South and 32nd Avenue South would have suited the city’s needs.
“I totally get it, to the neighbors along 32nd, I totally understand that, and that’s why I sat back and said ‘let’s find the right corridor,’” Gander said. “But whatever emerges as the right corridor from a financial standpoint, a political standpoint, we need to get behind it and do the best we can.”