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Infrastructure bill would ease path for Grand Forks interchange, underpass projects

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is winding its way through the U.S. House of Representatives. If it's signed into law, it would mean a larger pool of money for which North Dakota cities like Grand Forks compete each year to pay for city infrastructure plans.

Cars stack up as they await passage of a train on 42nd Avenue in west Grand Forks in this Herald file photo. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)
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A new I-29 interchange and an underpass at North 42nd Street in Grand Forks are still years away, but a massive federal infrastructure package would presumably make the money for them easier to come by.

The $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would presumably mean millions for North Dakota and Grand Forks’ governments to spend on roadworks, including an interchange at the possible future intersection of 47th Avenue South and the interstate , plus a plan to tunnel 42nd Street underneath a set of railway tracks in the city’s northwest corner. The bill’s future is still in flux because it has not yet been considered in its current form by the U.S. House of Representatives, and Grand Forks administrators said they aren’t sure how much money it would even mean for the city’s infrastructure hopes.

“The new highway bill doesn’t hurt building things like interchanges,” City Administrator Todd Feland said this week. He and Assistant City Engineer David Kuharenko said they aren’t sure how much money from the bill, if or when it’s signed into law, would flow from the feds to the North Dakota state government and, ultimately, to the city.

Before that tap opens, though, the city needs to produce an environmental assessment that considers how a new interchange would impact traffic, wildlife and so on. City contractors are set to wrap that up by the summer of 2022 at the earliest. The city is also “refreshing" a similar document put together for the underpass. The current version of the underpass’ assessment is about seven years old.

The interchange is meant to alleviate congestion along 32nd Avenue South, according to Feland and Kuharenko, because drivers could exit the highway at a second south-end street. Less traffic also presumably means fewer traffic accidents, and more infrastructure in that corner of the city could spur development there, they added.

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The hoped-for reduction in traffic along 32nd is a key part of the city’s plans for 47th. That’s because 32nd west of Washington Street is technically a state highway -- U.S. Business Highway 81 -- which could mean the North Dakota Department of Transportation could classify the interchange project as a regional, rather than local, one.

Regional projects can get an 80%/10%/10% cost split between federal, state, and local governments, respectively. But if state administrators aren’t convinced of the regional significance, they could instead classify the interchange plan as an “urban” -- local -- project, which would mean the feds would pay 80% of the cost and the city would pay 20%. A Metropolitan Planning Organization study put the cost of the interchange at $50 million in 2024 dollars, which, for Grand Forks’ city government, means there’s approximately a $5 million difference between the two designations.

The underpass project might hinge on a similar distinction: if the state considers it an enhancement for both 42nd and adjoining DeMers Avenue, another state highway, then the project might ultimately be treated as a regional project. If NDDOT concludes the underpass only improves 42nd, then it could end up an urban project. Kuharenko said its not clear whether the underpass would be considered regional or urban -- or whether the infrastructure bill might change the project's funding structure.

"The funding for that 42nd Street underpass is probably going to be a little bit more up in the air," he told the Herald. "With this upcoming federal aid package, we don't know how things might change. That could be an oddity, there."

The interchange and underpass projects have been in the works for years and don't depend on the federal infrastructure bill, but, Feland said, the bill makes it more likely to become a reality in the next few years. Projects like the interchange compete with other infrastructure projects across North Dakota for the same federal funds -- more money in that pool means cities like Grand Forks have a greater chance of receiving a piece of it.

“The infrastructure bill just provides more opportunities for more projects to get done sooner rather than later,” Feland said. “Less zero sum games, or at least our zero sum game is -- we’ve got a larger pool of money to draw from.”

Todd Feland
Todd Feland

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Todd Feland
Todd Feland

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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