The Nielsville bridge in northwest Minnesota is still out of commission, but new federal dollars stir new hope

·5 min read

Dec. 8—NIELSVILLE, Minn. — The bridge over the Red River between Nielsville, Minnesota, and Cummings, North Dakota, has been closed since September 2015. In the years since, the closure has prompted longer trips for nearby residents and farmers, and reduced customer traffic at local businesses.

For some, Nielsville Mayor David Vraa said, "probably 40% of their business came across that bridge. With the bridge closed, it just killed their profit margin."

The decaying bridge closed in 2015, with repairs estimated to cost between $8.5 million and $11 million and with public entities on both sides of the Red needing to cover portions of the cost. Minnesota had funding available for its share, but North Dakota did not.

Richard Sanders, Polk County engineer, says if the Nielsville bridge will ever be replaced, now is the time. With the recent passage of the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal bipartisan infrastructure package signed into law by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15, states have access to extra funding over a span of five years specifically for previously unaffordable needs, such as replacing the Nielsville bridge.

"Based on what I'm seeing, there should be money there to replace the Nielsville bridge. We just need the North Dakota Department of Transportation and Traill County (North Dakota) to say 'Because of this influx of money, now's the time to do it,'" said Sanders.

In early estimates of formula funding, Minnesota is expected to receive $4.5 billion in federal aid for highway apportioned programs and $302 million for bridge replacement and repairs. North Dakota is expected to receive $1.7 billion and $225 million, respectively.

The bill also will give federal funds to states for electric vehicle charging stations, broadband internet, airports and clean drinking water, among other infrastructure needs.

One problem for those hoping the Nielsville bridge will someday reopen. Sanders says any Nielsville plans are on hold, as the bridge near Climax, Minnesota, has been identified as a priority. In 2020, load restrictions were put in place for the Climax bridge after a 2019 inspection reported wear on some of its cross beams. Sanders said that in the past, both Traill County on the North Dakota side and Polk County in Minnesota and have applied for federal grants to fund the replacement of the Nielsville bridge. They didn't this year because of the new focus on the Climax bridge.

Polk and Traill counties are working together on plans to replace the Climax bridge, and Sanders says the counties are aiming to start construction on a new bridge by 2023 or 2024. The most recent cost estimate by engineering company KLJ is $9 million for the bridge alone, and $11 million including approaches.

According to Sanders, with extra federal funding and plans already in place to replace the bridge in Climax, the counties could save money by lumping the Nielsville and Climax bridges into the same contract.

"You just have to convince Bismarck that both Nielsville and Climax are needed," said Sanders.

The Nielsville bridge is just one example of a larger infrastructure issue faced by Minnesota and North Dakota. According to data from the 2021 National Bridge Inventory, 618 bridges, or 4.6% of bridges, in Minnesota are in poor condition, and 481 bridges, or 11.2%, in North Dakota are in poor condition. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Minnesota a "C" grade and North Dakota a "C-" grade on each state's most recent infrastructure report card.

Minnesota State Sen. Mark Johnson, a Republican from East Grand Forks, says it will be important not to overlook rural areas as Minnesota chooses how to spend its portion of the federal infrastructure package. He says his district, which includes Polk, Red Lake, Pennington, Marshall, Kittson and Roseau counties, has numerous roads and bridges that need upkeep, maintenance and replacement.

"If we can make sure that we're allocating enough money, or a substantial amount of money, to counties and townships and cities, I think it'll have a larger impact on rural Minnesota, where we really need that money," he said.

Keeping up with infrastructure needs keeps the region a part of the global economy, says Johnson. With industries like agriculture and manufacturing, he believes investing in infrastructure makes northwest Minnesota a better economic competitor.

"We feed the world and we provide a lot of products," said Johnson. "Let's make sure that we're investing in those avenues for transportation."

Sanders says to expect more road and bridge construction projects in northwest Minnesota over the next five to 10 years.

"(MnDOT) District 2 will be meeting in the middle of December to put together projects for each county, and with this new infrastructure plan, there's going to be more to spend so we'll be able to do more projects every year," said Sanders.

While extra funding may possibly be available for the Nielsville bridge, the challenge may come in convincing all involved parties that the bridge is necessary and worth the costs.

Johnson, who has put forward proposals on how to fund a new bridge between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, compared his work in East Grand Forks to the case of the Nielsville bridge. With multiple cities, counties and state entities involved in the funding of border-crossing bridges, funding decisions are more complex than on projects contained within a state.

"Once you start dealing with lining up all these different entities, each one has a certain part of the pie for finance, so each one has a different process and say in how it goes," said Johnson. "I'm not saying it can't be done, of course. It's done all the time. It just takes the right set of circumstances to get over the hill and get that project going."

In Nielsville, Vraa is cautiously optimistic.

"I'm hoping that with this big infrastructure bill we'll get some money to put a bridge in, but I'm not going to hold my breath," he said.

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