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New street or a roundabout? East Grand Forks to decide next week

East Grand Forks' long-range transportation plans call for a roundabout at the intersection of Bygland Road and Rhinehart Drive, but some council members hope to replace that plan with one that would rebuild a chunk of 10th Street Northeast. Both projects would lean on the same federal funding, which means city leaders will presumably need to choose one over the other. Council members were expected to make a decision on Tuesday, but they opted instead for a more formal vote next week.

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East Grand Forks City Hall

East Grand Forks City Council members are set to make a formal decision next week on their longrunning debate over a future road project.

Council members agreed on Tuesday to hold a formal vote at their meeting next week that would decide whether the city would amend its transportation plans to include a reconstruction of 10th Street Northeast – where the road is in such poor condition that it’s prompted trucks to drive through adjacent business’ lots to avoid it – at the expense of a long-planned roundabout at the intersection of Bygland Road and Rhinehart Drive that would aim to reduce traffic congestion during morning and afternoon rush hours. City staff hoped council members would make a decision – informally, at least – on Tuesday so they could get the figurative ball rolling on one of those projects, but council members ultimately agreed to hold off on a decision for another seven days. Both projects would rely on the same $860,000 worth of federal funding, and that presents a more or less binary choice to council members: a roundabout on Bygland or a new street on 10th.

“We’re to the point, now, on both of them – moving forward is going to take some considerable staff time (and) is going to require use of consultants. That’s going to incur cost,” City Administrator David Murphy told council members. “What I’m going to need from the council, if possible, is for the council to pick one of the two projects.”

Council President Mark Olstad was absent from the meeting, and council member Tim Johnson was present via the internet for about half of it.

Each project has a relatively small but still-significant unknown: most of the roundabout designs presented to council members would require at least some kind of buyout of nearby private property, which would hike the project’s total cost beyond its current $1.6 million estimate. Also, it’s unclear how much money Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway and American Crystal Sugar would be obligated to pitch in for the 10th Street rebuild, which leaves the total amount of money available for the $2.2 million project uncertain. Both businesses abut the segment of 10th that city leaders hope to renovate.

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Filling in either of those blanks would incur the kind of costs Murphy explained to council members: the first steps of property buyouts would be scheduling appraisals, which aren’t cheap, and pushing for either the railway or the potato plant to pay for part of the 10th Street project would mean a lot of city staff time.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, even if we have property acquisition, it’s not going to be a million dollars,” council member Clarence Vetter, a staunch proponent of the Bygland roundabout, said of the potential buyouts.

Beyond the railway and American Crystal, Vetter also wondered aloud if other businesses adjacent to the 10th Street project would pony up for the project.

Council member Dale Helms, who’s pushed strongly for the 10th Street project to take precedence, said he’s heard from city residents who’d prefer a stoplight at the Bygland/Rhinehart intersection, rather than a roundabout. He suggested installing a stoplight that would be programmed to ease traffic along Bygland during peak traffic times.

“You can put a stoplight in there like that for $250,000,” Helms said. “Now you’ve still got enough money, you can probably go ahead and fix the other street, too, if you want. ... To spend $2 million to put a roundabout in for a half hour out of the day, it doesn’t make sense to me.”

In related news, council members:

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  • Were briefed on a branch of the Circle of Friends animal shelter in a mall in downtown East Grand Forks that has operated for about a year. City policy does not specifically allow such a business to operate there, and council members can decide to amend the code to accommodate the shelter, or the shelter will need to find a new place to operate. Amending the code would require public hearings.
  • Were briefed by an Eastside resident who is upset about people walking along the levee behind houses on Eighth Street Southeast. That area is technically the property of homeowners there, but members of the public generally seem to believe it’s public property.
  • Informally agreed to cut the fee for renewing a city liquor license by 25% as a way to ease the financial stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and gubernatorial orders intended to mitigate the virus’ spread.

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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