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Search for Nielsville bridge funding continues in Polk County, despite lack of support across the river

On Sept. 8, Polk County submitted the application for a Federal Highway Administration grant to fund the replacement of the Nielsville bridge and two other bridges that cross the Red River.

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The Nielsville bridge over the Red River was closed in 2015 after a hole formed in its deck.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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NIELSVILLE, Minn. — Polk County moved forward with a grant application asking for funding to replace the Nielsville bridge, which crosses the Red River, without the support of Traill County leaders on the other side of the shuttered bridge.

On Sept. 8, the county submitted the application for a Federal Highway Administration grant to fund the replacement of the Nielsville bridge and two other bridges that cross the Red River. At its meeting earlier in the week, the Traill County Commission declined to sign a letter of support to include in the application.

“Everybody wants a new bridge in Nielsville, and there’s no doubt about that,” said Kendall Nesvig, chair of the Traill County Commission. “But it just isn’t feasible. With the infrastructure packages we’re dealing with, we don’t have that kind of money.”

The Nielsville bridge, which connects Nielsville, Minnesota, and Cummings, North Dakota, was closed in 2015 after a large hole formed in its deck. In 2016, replacing the bridge was estimated to cost between $8.5 million and $11 million, split between Polk and Traill counties. Now, says Richard Sanders, Polk County engineer, the estimated cost for the bridge and approaches is $9.5 million.

The absence of the bridge since 2015 has been inconvenient for constituents, says Joan Lee, chair of the Polk County Commission.

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“We have a lot of farmers that are on both sides of the river, so that definitely adds a lot of travel time when they’re moving farm equipment,” she said.

The grant application bundles together the Nielsville bridge with other two bridges near Hendrum, Minnesota, and Georgetown, Minnesota, that have been identified as priorities for replacement.

Sanders said bundling the Nielsville bridge with the two others makes the application stronger. At the Georgetown bridge, in Cass County in North Dakota and Clay County in Minnesota, the west abutment, which helps support the bridge, is settling. The Hendrum bridge, between Norman County, Minnesota, and Traill County, is still in decent shape, said Sanders, but will soon be in more urgent need of replacement.

“If we can remove three functionally obsolete, structurally deficient, fracture critical bridges off the Red River, it’ll be better for everybody,” he said.

With the Hedrum and Georgetown bridges included, the project to replace the bridges is estimated to cost $29 million. The grant application submitted asks for $25.5 million, which is expected to cover 80% of the total costs for the bridges. This award would leave 20% of the cost to be covered by local funds.

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If the grant was awarded for the bridges, both Polk and Traill counties would be responsible for finding funding for the remaining 20% not covered by the grant for the Nielsville portion of the project.

“That would put in at least a couple million dollars that we’d have to come up with,” said Nesvig.

The application package, which was submitted Sept. 8, included letters of support from the North Dakota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Cass County, Clay County, Norman County, Polk County, people affected by the three bridges and city leaders in nearby towns, said Sanders.

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“We can’t sit around and wait 10 years for Traill County to have their portion of the money when grants are available now to replace the bridge,” said Sanders.

Polk County and Traill County have applied for federal grants to replace the Nielsville bridge four times before, said Nesvig, racking up more than $40,000 in grant writing costs. After being turned down four times, said Nesvig, the Traill County commission decided to focus on other priorities.

“The commission just decided that we’re throwing money down a rat hole, and sooner or later we have to face reality,” said Nesvig.

But, Sanders says, Traill County leaders do not have a choice on whether to support the replacement of the Nielsville Bridge.

“The fact of the matter is there’s a joint bridge between Polk County and Traill County,” said Sanders. “They don’t have the option of not supporting replacing the bridge — the bridge needs to be replaced.”

He says Polk County would be held to the same standards if Traill County took the lead on a bridge replacement project.

Polk and Traill counties are working together to replace the Climax bridge, which crosses the Red River about 5 miles north of the Nielsville bridge. Load restrictions on the Climax bridge were put in place in 2020, and Sanders says construction on a new bridge could begin by early 2024.

Despite movement on the Climax bridge, Sanders is still pushing for support for Nielsville.

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“We’re continuing to try to find funding for the Nielsville bridge because we think it’s a priority,” said Sanders. “The residents think it’s a priority and hopefully at some point we’ll find funding for it and be able to replace it.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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