A plan to build a roundabout in East Grand Forks has been thrown for a loop.
Last month, East Grand Forks City Council members voted 4-3 to keep a planned $1.6 million traffic circle at Bygland Road and Rhinehart Drive at the top of their list for $860,000 worth of federal “subtarget” infrastructure funding in 2022. But, last week, Mayor Steve Gander quietly vetoed their decision and, at a meeting on Tuesday evening, council members didn't muster enough votes to override that veto, which has put the roundabout’s future into doubt, at least in the short term.
“I do believe that we need to improve our vehicular access onto Bygland Road, particularly in the morning,” Gander said Tuesday, referring to the traffic that sometimes snarls that road as people commute to and from nearby schools and workplaces. “My concern is there may be a better way to do it.”
Voting to override the veto were council members Tim Johnson, Marc DeMers, Brian Larson and Clarence Vetter. Voting to keep the veto in place were Dale Helms and Tim Riopelle, plus City Council President Mark Olstad. At first blush, the 4-3 vote to override looks like a success, but city code requires at least three-quarters of the council agree to override a veto, not a simple majority. That means at least six of seven council members needed to vote against Gander's veto.
Change the plan? Change the year?
East Grand Forks’ long-range transit plan, a long-winded document filed with the Metropolitan Planning Organization that’s a necessary part of the city’s application for the federal money, still has the Bygland roundabout at the top of the city’s list for 2022 federal money. The veto and the failed override vote didn’t change that, but there’s a difference between having a plan and executing that plan. Last month’s vote instructed city staff to begin pursuing the roundabout plan in earnest, and Gander’s veto nullified those instructions, prompting council members to revisit their decision and, potentially, switch to a different project, such as a $2.2 million street reconstruction plan in an industrial park along 10th Street Northeast.
Both plans would rely on the same $860,000 from the feds to pay for the construction. City leaders have been debating which project should be at the front of the line for that money and which would need to wait until the city is appropriated another batch of it in 2026 or beyond. The subtarget funding rotates each year between East Grand Forks, Crookston, Thief River Falls and Bemidji, which means each city can use it once every four years to subsidize a road project.
In East Grand Forks City Administrator David Murphy’s estimation, the failed override of Gander’s veto means the plan to build a roundabout at Bygland and Rhinehart has been “defeated” for the time being. That, he indicated, leaves city leaders with a choice: rush to put a different infrastructure plan, such as the 10th Street project, in the roundabout’s place as state and federal deadlines loom relatively large, or see if nearby cities would be willing to swap places in the federal funding rotation, which would give East Grand Forks leaders time to reconsider their options.
“I would think before we get too far ahead of ourselves letting our subtarget dollars slip by a year, we come back to a work session one more time and see if we can reach consensus within a time frame where we can still modify the plan and get this into the program for that year,” Gander said shortly before Tuesday’s vote. “I feel like there’s a good chance for doing that, and I think that’s what our community would expect of us.”
The city could, perhaps, divide the $860,000 from the feds between both projects, Murphy guessed. He said he’s never seen that happen before, “but it doesn’t mean you can’t.”
Buyouts are an unknown
Gander has worried about the potential cost of buying strips of private residential property from homeowners at the intersection of Bygland and Rhinehart to make the roundabout fit, so to speak, in a way that doesn’t constrict nearby roads and access to a gas station. Those buyouts could make the roundabout considerably more expensive than the $1.6 million estimate put forward by city engineers.
“I do not believe that it is prudent to commit to using our federal subtarget dollars for this project without a firm dollar amount established for property acquisition,” Gander wrote in an April 26 letter outlining his veto. “There is also a strong sense in the community, which I share, that this may not (be) our highest transportation infrastructure need.”
Before last month’s vote to keep the roundabout plan in place, Gander said moving forward with it was like agreeing to build a house on land that he didn’t own. And Ellis Austin, a longtime East Grand Forks resident and one of several people who spoke at a council meeting prior to the vote in April that Gander later vetoed, worried that property owners near the proposed roundabout would recognize that the city had committed to the project and then charge a hefty premium for their land.
There are four different variations of the roundabout design, one of which wouldn’t require any property acquisition but could make it difficult for cars to drive into the gas station’s parking lot and would push pedestrians farther south to cross Rhinehart, according to city engineers. Regardless, it’s tough to gauge how much the city might have to spend to buy whatever adjoining land it needs to build the roundabout, according to Murphy.
Depending on the roundabout’s final design, the city may want to buy part of an empty lot immediately east of the Bygland and Rhinehart intersection, part of a corner lot southwest of it, enough land immediately south of Orton’s gas station to replace a driveway that would be subsumed by the roundabout, or some combination thereof. The three properties are worth between $16,200 and $141,400 in total value, according to Polk County assessor records, but those are total valuations for the whole property, rather than the smaller chunks the city might need, and county property valuations often don’t translate to actual sale prices. And property owners might argue that altering the intersection itself could lower the value of their property, which could put the city on the financial hook.
Assessments are, too
But the 10th Street rebuild, which some council members prefer over the Bygland roundabout, also has question marks. Most notably among them: how much money the city could expect to receive from American Crystal Sugar and BNSF railway via special assessments, which are charges local governments can make to property owners who would benefit from nearby infrastructure upgrades. More money from assessments would subsidize the street reconstruction plan’s $2.2 million estimated price.
The roundabout was in an earlier iteration of the city’s long-range transportation plan and was ready to receive the same federal money in 2018, but East Grand Forks City Council members voted to push it back to 2022. Intersection upgrades -- a divided median, "enhanced" crosswalks and so on -- at 13th and Bygland replaced it.