‘Somebody’s got to go first’: East Grand Forks lawmakers begin push for south-end bridge funding

State Sen. Mark Johnson and Rep. Deb Kiel have introduced legislation in the Minnesota Legislature that would borrow money for a fourth road bridge between East Grand Forks and Grand Forks. A new bridge, regardless of where it goes, would still be years in the making, but bonding proposals can take years to get formal approval in St. Paul.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization decided in December 2018 that 32nd Avenue South, pictured here, is the area's top inner-city contender for a south-end bridge to East Grand Forks. The issue has been debated for years. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A pair of northwest Minnesota legislators have put forth a proposal that would pay for a new bridge between East Grand Forks and Grand Forks.

Identical bills authored by Sen. Mark Johnson , R-East Grand Forks, and Rep. Deb Kiel , R-Crookston, would appropriate, via a future statewide bonding bill, a yet-to-be-determined amount of money for a bridge at a yet-to-be-determined spot over the Red River.

“We need to have that bridge,” Johnson told the Herald. “It needs to be built, and I want to make sure that we’re prepared here on the Minnesota side so that when we get our act together, the funding will be there for that.”

Even optimistic estimates among civic leaders on either side of the river put construction at least a few years down the road, and it’s still unclear where a fourth road bridge would even be built.

Regional planners have suggested crossings at 17th Avenue South, Elks Drive, 32nd Avenue, and 47th Avenue for a “neighborhood” bridge between the two cities. East Grand Forks officials are largely uninterested in the 47th Avenue option because the city’s levee system ends at 32nd. But Grand Forks politicians have been skeptical of a bridge at 32nd despite its routine appearance in regional transportation plans and a study by the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Metropolitan Planning Commission that suggests it would produce the most bang, as measured by estimated reductions in traffic congestion, for the public’s buck, as measured by rough estimates of construction costs.


Another option is at Merrifield Road, which is much farther south than the four other spots and enjoys considerably more support than any of its northerly counterparts. But that crossing aims to be a bypass for agricultural traffic more than a salve for Grand Cities congestion, and it, too, is still at least a few years from reality. Beyond that, Johnson and Kiel’s bills both specify that the bridge would connect “the southern portion of the cities,” which might preclude Merrifield because it sits outside both towns’ borders.

Minnesota lawmakers tend to produce a large-scale bonding bill in even-numbered years, which means Johnson and Kiel’s bills may not have much of a chance of being approved until the spring of 2022. And many bonding proposals have to wait at least one go-round before they receive the governor’s signature, which, assuming the legislative status quo stays put, could push the funding proposal as far out as 2024.

Still, Johnson chuckled when asked if his bill was premature.

“If Minnesota shows support for this, maybe that would help push the North Dakota Legislature into putting some money into that, the county investing in that,” Johnson said. “Somebody’s got to go first, and I want to show that we’re supporting it, that we’re committed to it, and hopefully that’ll help push the process along faster, further.”

On the North Dakota side of the river, city and state officials aren’t as ready to start pushing for state or federal funding for a new bridge, regardless of its location. Todd Feland, Grand Forks’ city administrator, said a south-end bridge is one of several projects city leaders presented to state administrators in Bismarck on Thursday.

At the top of the city’s list, at present, is an underpass at 42nd Street and DeMers Avenue that would avoid a set of railroad tracks there in an effort to ease traffic congestion there. Nearly as high on that list is a 47th Avenue interchange with I-29.

One tier below, so to speak, are a bridge Merrifield and an intercity bridge. Both need further study -- environmental impact statements and so on -- to be eligible for federal funding that governments on both sides of the river would presumably lean on to pay for either project.

“We’re not shovel ready yet,” Dana Sande, Grand Forks’ city council president, said, “which is why we’re not asking for money yet.”


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Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, incumbent senator in Minnesota District 1.

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

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