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Moorhead makes underpass funding No. 1 legislative priority

Railroad signal lights and traffic lights make for a visually busy intersection at Main Avenue Southeast and 20th/21st Street in Moorhead. The underpass will separate the streets and tracks to improve traffic flow. Forum file photo

MOORHEAD — Some Moorhead City Council members said if they knew last November what they know now, the city's legislative strategy would be different.

That's because there is an $11 million shortfall for a long-anticipated railway separation project near Moorhead High School expected to cost $65.9 million. City leaders and first responders have said the underpass is critical for public safety at the busy intersection of Main Avenue Southeast and 20th/21st Street South.

The council hopes to help bridge that gap by securing $7 million in capital bonding from the state. The state already allocated $43 million to the project last year, which is why funding for the underpass wasn't on the city's 2018 legislative initiatives.

But after bids recently came in higher than budgeted for, the underpass is back on the list — and on the top, knocking down funding for another project to second place.

"Had we known that information back then, we would have made that our priority," council member Heidi Durand said at a meeting Monday, May 14.

The city's No. 1 legislative priority voted on last November was requesting $7.5 million for a new facility to transfer waste and recover problem materials like hazardous waste and electronics.

Public Works Director Steve Moore said the existing Clay County facility is 44 years old, and deferred maintenance has increased significantly the last couple years. The facility handles 30,000 tons of materials annually when it was designed for much less, he said.

"It's old and it doesn't fit the city anymore," Moore said.

It's a county project with a $12.5 million price tag. Without additional funding, customers will see an increase in fees, which hasn't happened since 2003, Moore said.

Voting against the change were council members Sara Watson Curry and Chuck Hendrickson, who both argued the existing facility has pressing needs that shouldn't be put off for another year.

Watson Curry said while the project is not as "glamorous" as an underpass, it's an essential service to the community.

"The top two are gut-wrenching," said Hendrickson, adding that he knows the city needs the underpass, but a transfer station is important, too.

Durand agreed both projects are important, but what keeps her up at night is the possibility of a fatal car-train accident.

"A transfer station isn't going to prevent that," she said.

A tearful Melissa Fabian said if a school bus were to be involved in a crash at the intersection, it would weigh heavily on her conscience. The council member said she wants to send a clear message to legislators that this is the city's top concern.

Even if the state dishes out another $7 million for the underpass, the city will have to make up $4 million in local costs, which could be paid for with special assessments.

Included in the legislative priority list is $7 million in funding for another underpass project at 11th Street, as well as $12 million to complete a flood mitigation project in north Moorhead.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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