Grand Forks and East Grand Forks civic leaders got their first look this week at another southside bridge study that presents a clearer picture of their options for crossing the Red River at Elks Drive, 32nd Avenue and 47th Avenue.
Those options tilt on a handful of axes: the three locations, the height – “low,” “medium,” or “high” – of each bridge at any of those locations, and the cost of each of the resulting nine options. The cheapest, as presented by consultants from engineering firm KLJ, is a $28.96 million low bridge at 47th Avenue, and the most expensive is a $44.01 million high bridge at the same spot. But low bridges would often be rendered unusable by spring flooding, and high bridges, which would rise above the city’s levee system, need more space and infrastructure and generally carry a higher price tag. Medium bridges, naturally, occupy a figurative middle ground that can carry some of the downsides and upsides of both, depending on the spot at which they’d be built.
The prices presented to Grand Forks leaders on Monday and East Grand Forks leaders on Tuesday are considerably cheaper than those outlined in an earlier Metropolitan Planning Organization study. That, according to city staff, is because the planning organization used more generic pricing considerations.
“I would generally call that the first peel of the onion,” Al Grasser, Grand Forks’ city engineer, told Grand Forks City Council members, referring to the planning organization’s cost estimates. “This is about the second and third peel of the onion relative to degree of accuracy.”
The new study looked at how each bridge design would affect the flow of the Red River. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires that any southside bridge not raise water levels near properties that can carry flood insurance during a flood beyond the levels the water would hit if the new bridge were never built, which means some bridge designs would require extensive excavation. A low bridge at Elks Drive, for instance, would only cost $9.8 million and the roadway atop it would tack on another $4.87 million, but “mitigation” would cost $15.2 million, making it only slightly less expensive than a medium bridge at the same spot. The cities could opt to remove existing structures in the water – a pedestrian bridge near Elks Drive, for instance – to help compensate for the new bridge and reduce the amount of excavation or other measures needed to satisfy FEMA.
Some of those mitigation costs include presumed property buyouts, which the consultants estimated, based on assessed property values, would cost up to $3 million, depending on the bridge location. Those costs are included in their total estimates for each bridge variation, but are not specified beyond that.
“I don’t want to get people too excited at this point,” Brian Gaddie, an engineer at Grand Forks-based AE2S, told East Grand Forks City Council members Tuesday. “We’re just at a very concept level. We’re not at a design. We don’t want to say, ‘hey this is going to go right through your front porch’ or something. It’s not to that level. There could be tweaks in alignment further. You could shift north or south of the actual right of way that’s there right now, retaining walls, all that kind of stuff.”
It’s worth noting that Brandon Bochenski, Grand Forks’ new mayor, favors none of the three locations presented this week. He said he's only on board with a new bridge at Merrifield Road, a more-or-less noncontroversial bridge location which is in the southward path of Grand Forks' new development but is still relatively far from most Grand Cities residents, particularly those in East Grand Forks.
“... You have two population centers, one on each side of a river,” Mayor Steve Gander said as he held his palms up a few inches apart. “So you have residential neighborhoods and commercial neighborhoods and all built up against the river on both sides. Let’s say that that extends for five miles. Hypothetically, what’s the best interval to place a bridge between those two centers?”
Gaddie joked that Gander probably wouldn’t like his answer.
“To me, it’d be more reliant on what the traffic patterns and what the corridor is you’re trying to tie into,” he said. “To just say that it should be one mile from here, two miles from there, I don’t feel like is the correct answer there.”
Wade Frank, a KLJ engineer, said the North Dakota Department of Transportation prefers highway interchanges every two miles.
“That might be a number that’s comparable because it’s a similar type of connectivity issue that you’re talking about,” he told Gander.
Eastside leaders are generally leery of a bridge south of 32nd Avenue and, at their request, KLJ staff also studied the feasibility of a bridge there that would extend around the southernmost limits of the city’s levee system.
Gander said on Tuesday that too-far distances between bridges create “redundant” north-south traffic.
“There is some maximum separation beyond which it does not make sense,” he said.
The two cities are connected by three road bridges: the Kennedy, Sorlie and Point. City leaders have been contemplating – and arguing about – where to put a fourth bridge for decades, and the issue gets more complicated as Grand Forks continues to expand. The planning organization’s prior study indicated that a bridge at 32nd would have the best cost-to-benefit ratio, but that was before the KLJ study sharpened those cost estimates.
City leaders on both sides of the river agreed, at least on paper, on a 32nd Avenue bridge in their long-term transportation plans. But Grand Forks critics of a bridge there maintained that, for years, it was closer to a placeholder than a plan.
And then-Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, who preferred a bridge at 47th, indicated last summer that he’d veto further spending on a 32nd Avenue bridge, but he ultimately didn’t exercise that power when Grand Forks City Council members OK'd their city’s share of the $95,000 study.
The presentations to each council only outlined the study’s findings in broad terms. The study itself is not yet completed. It is, in effect, a supplement to a larger one the planning organization is working on. That study was originally designed to include a look at different bridges' effects on the Red, but the federal government indicated that it wouldn't pay for that portion, and Grand Forks and East Grand Forks city officials jointly decided to pay for it out of their own civic pockets.