East Grand Forks to take another run at fixing rundown roadway

Residents along 20th Street Northwest in East Grand Forks weren't willing to pay for the large-scale street replacement that city engineers say is necessary there, which meant the street didn't get the work it needs because a city policy requires property owners to pay for the entirety of that work. City officials voted Tuesday to refresh a study that weighs what sort of work is needed along that street.

"Frost boils" along 20th Street Northwest in East Grand Forks appeared in the spring of 2020. Joe Bowen / Grand Forks Herald.

East Grand Forks officials have been down this road before, but perhaps they could traverse it more cheaply this time.

City Council members on Tuesday voted 6-1 to commission another study of the roadworks needed at the intersection of 20th Street Northwest and Fifth Avenue Northwest, where the street has been in need of large-scale repairs for years but a financial impasse has meant that only small-scale fixes have come thus far.

Related: How do you fix 20th street?

The new study is meant to update one the city commissioned in 2019. The two-year-old study determined that reconstructing the street and utilities at that intersection would cost about $2.1 million -- a bill that city policy dictates should be paid entirely by nearby property owners. Residents along 20th balked at that bill, which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars for some of them, according to city documents.

That reluctance, plus a 2019 council decision not to alter the policy , means the road has only been fixed in bits and pieces -- patched potholes, for instance -- rather than the larger-scale reconstruction city staff have long suggested. The city has spent a comparatively large amount of its annual street maintenance budget putting figurative bandages on 20th.


“There’s always something over there,” Jason Stordahl, the city’s public works director, told the Herald, noting that different layers of “subgrade” building material under the road have sunken unevenly. “There’s a lot of shifting and moving and it’s certainly not going to get any better just sitting like it is.”

Other than wear and tear on the roadway and the small patches to address it, nothing major has changed along 20th since 2019, according to Stordahl.

So, if the roadway is still in bad shape, residents weren’t willing to foot the bill before, and the city policy that pushes that cost onto them remains intact, how will this go-round be any different than the last?

Mayor Steve Gander, who put forth this year’s proposal, did not return Herald requests for comment on Tuesday. But at a council meeting last week, he said neighbors along 20th “haven’t seen a package that worked well” and objected when council member Clarence Vetter, who was the lone vote against the study on Tuesday, said residents there had voted it down before.

“Nobody’s voted it down,” Gander retorted.

City Administrator David Murphy said that, typically, the type of feasibility report the city is set to commission recommends a single, industry-standard course of action for a given project. Assuming the new report produces a result that’s similar -- and similarly expensive -- to the older report, the city could then explore cheaper options. Rebuilding the road with asphalt instead of concrete was one tossed around briefly last week. And the mayor, Stordahl said, has spoken with residents along 20th to discuss different repair options and has asked city engineering contractors to draft a few different ways to repair the road.


“Full street replacement with concrete is the recommended option,” Gander said last week, referring to city staff members’ suggestion. “And if that turns out to be untenable to the residents, financially, only then would we consider a less durable, less expensive outcome.”

An evaluation, a subsidy, and a bus

In related news, council members on Tuesday also:

  • Approved a summary of their evaluation of Murphy that reads “Mr. Murphy consistently meets and/or exceeds expectations” in operation, planning, budgets, meeting, financial reports, elections, supervision, employment, personnel, government liaison, and council goals, and “has successfully carried out his duties as the city administrator/clerk-treasurer.” Council members met behind closed doors for about 40 minutes on Oct. 5 to evaluate Murphy.
    Only Murphy himself returned a Herald request for comment about the evaluation that evening: he said council members want him to work on a marketing campaign for the city in 2022. His goals for 2021 were to work on a plan to renovate the city’s parks and rec facilities and to push for a new south-end bridge between East Grand Forks and Grand Forks.

  • Approved a business subsidy agreement that would pay Northern Valley Machine up to $120,000 worth of Border Cities Tax Credits over the next three years. That subsidy isn’t the same as cutting a check, though, according to Paul Gorte, the city’s economic development director. Instead, it means the company won’t pay about $40,000 worth of property taxes to East Grand Forks and Polk County each of those years, and the state government will reimburse the city and county for those losses. Gorte characterized the subsidy as a pre-emptive move that aims to keep the company in town.
    “Northern Valley Machine is one of the primary businesses in East Grand Forks,” he wrote to council members in an Oct. 19 memo. “The business is a target for other cities and states to recruit because it is an excellent business to have in a community. It is important for the city to allocate resources to retain the business and the jobs it provides. One of the ways to do that is to reduce the property tax burden. ... The use of the tax credits would retain the business and its 68+ high-paying jobs as well as provide for steady job growth over the next three years. The use of the tax credits will also provide resources for Northern Valley Machine to invest in the equipment it needs for its business.”
    Also seeking a similar subsidy is RJ Zavoral & Sons, the Eastside construction company at which City Council member Marc DeMers works. Gorte said the specifics of that subsidy are still up in the air, but that it’s set to be considered by the city’s Economic Development Authority later this month before possibly heading to the council proper.

  • Approved the purchase of a new “low floor” bus for Cities Area Transit’s fixed busing routes. The bus is set to cost an estimated $169,000, $152,100 of which is set to come from the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

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

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