Grand Forks, East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce urges action on new infrastructure cash

·4 min read

Nov. 30—A new infrastructure bill hikes North Dakota and Minnesota's yearly appropriations for roadworks by a combined 26% over the next five years and apportions hundreds of millions more for bridge replacement and repairs.

It's why Grand Forks and East Grand Forks' combined chamber of commerce has convened an "infrastructure group" to encourage city and county governments here to get their administrative ducks in a row so some of that cash can subsidize long-awaited road and bridge projects in Grand Forks or over the Red River.

The group held an introductory meeting on Nov. 4 and is set to meet again on Thursday, Dec. 2, at the chamber's offices in downtown Grand Forks. There, members of the ad hoc committee are set to pick three or four top infrastructure priorities and determine who needs to do what to receive federal money for them, according to an agenda for the meeting provided to the Herald.

"The time is now to tackle some of the major transportation infrastructure projects like Merrifield bridge, 47th and Merrifield I-29 interchanges and 42nd underpass at DeMers," local Chamber of Commerce President Barry Wilfahrt wrote to the Herald after the Nov. 4 meeting.

A Nov. 9 letter from chamber leaders to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a federally-funded regional transportation planning and policy-making body, urges the organization and city and county governments on both sides of the river to act immediately to "ensure the proper planning and local financial match for major infrastructure projects is available."

In an interview on Monday, Wilfahrt said the planning organization's job is to coordinate infrastructure projects and that the chamber's committee isn't doing anything that the planning organization couldn't do. The chamber is trying to be a "convener" or a "catalyst," he said.

"In order for each entity to say, 'hey, we're going to commit the money to it,' it's good for the business community and the broader community to voice their support, so that they're more comfortable when they've got to push the green button, so to speak," Wilfahrt said. "If they're hearing from constituencies around the community that this is what they want, that helps them make those decisions and vote to do things like this."

The chamber, Wilfahrt said, wants to get things built and the MPO is more process-driven.

"Data and studies are often outcomes for them. These are important steps in the process for sure," he said. "But with this kind of money available for projects now, we need to be sure we are ready to build as funds are released. This (requires) coordination."

In Grand Forks, leaders have been working toward an underpass at the intersection of North 42nd Street and DeMers Avenue, where passing trains can sometimes snarl traffic, and a new interchange at the future intersection of I-29 and 47th Avenue South.

And leaders in both cities have been, for years, working on a spot to build a new bridge between them over the Red River. The least politically fraught location is Merrifield Road, but it's still at least a mile beyond Grand Forks' southernmost developments and is a non-starter for East Grand Forks officials, who note that a bridge there would be well outside their city's borders. The Kennedy Bridge is the newest crossing between the two cities, Wilfahrt noted. It was built in 1963.

The federal infrastructure bill itself reauthorized $295 billion worth of existing federal transportation funding and tacked $275 billion on top of it. At present, Minnesota receives about $700 million each year to maintain highways and roads, and North Dakota receives about $280 million, according to Earl Haugen, the planning organization's executive director. With the new influx of cash from the infrastructure bill, those figures would rise to an estimated $900 million and $340 million each year, respectively, for the next five.

Federal funding to replace or repair bridges is set to rise to about $300 million spread across the next five years in Minnesota and $225 million in North Dakota. Haugen indicated that it's effectively a new program and that there were "relatively small amounts for bridges" before the infrastructure bill was approved.

Beyond that is $28 billion, spread across the country over that same span, to build new bridges or for large-scale projects that would boost local economies. It's not an infrastructure project per se, but East Grand Forks officials and staff have been weighing a sweeping set of upgrades to city ballfields and two publicly owned ice arenas that could be eligible for that economic-boost money. The city, though, is angling for that cash separately from the chamber's effort, according to David Murphy, East Grand Forks' city administrator.

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