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Dave Olson, Published January 11 2011

I-94 ramp closure debate ramps up

Emotions boiled over Monday evening when Moorhead City Council members wrestled with how to reopen a set of interstate ramps many residents and business owners want back in operation.

A major source of the heat was a motion brought by council member Mark Hintermeyer, who suggested the council authorize city workers to remove barriers on ramps to and from Interstate 94 that were closed when a new interchange opened at 34th Street and southeast Main Avenue.

“We don’t have the authority to do what that motion asks us to do,” City Attorney Brian Neugebauer told the council, adding that any city employee who attempts such a thing might be risking prison for illegally tampering with the federal highway system.

Council member Mark Altenburg said he felt ambushed by Hintermeyer’s motion.

“I’m boiling mad. I’m furious,” Altenburg said, stating that a vote against the motion could be construed as opposing the reopening of the ramps, when in fact the entire council is on record as wanting the ramps kept open.

“Let us not go off hot-headed,” council member Diane Wray Williams urged, adding that she did not want to antagonize federal and state officials who will be instrumental in helping Moorhead achieve other goals, like an underpass planned for 20th Street South.

Hintermeyer said he was sorry if anyone felt ambushed by his motion, but he said the ramp closings have been devastating to businesses in the area of the new interchange.

City staff said closing the ramps was necessary as part of the contract governing the building of the interchange, which was made possible with federal funds through the Federal Highway Administration.

The federal agency has let the city know it does not allow ramps from old interchanges to remain open if they are too close to a new interchange.

Hintermeyer and fellow council members Luther Stueland and Brenda Elmer said a Congressional act passed in 2008 authorizing federal projects contained language stating that the old ramps were to be retained and refurbished.

The wording, they said, gives the city authority to keep the ramps open.

Randolph Stefanson, an attorney hired by the Moorhead Business Association, told the council he sees the situation the same way, and he urged the council to immediately open the ramps.

Neugebauer said the question of whether a Congressional act trumps regulatory rules is one that might be answered by a lawsuit, but he said that could take years to resolve.

City staff told the council Monday they are working on providing the Highway Administration with information that could persuade the agency to allow the ramps to stay.

City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said it might be some time in 2012 before the city could start work on rebuilding the ramps to updated highway codes, something he said would need to be done if the ramps are permitted to stay.

In the end Monday night, the council adopted a suggestion made by council member Nancy Otto.

Otto said the board could unite behind a plan that calls for city staff to seek the help of its congressional delegation while continuing to ask federal and state highway officials for permission to open the ramps at the earliest opportunity.

Council member Dan Hunt told the 30 or so audience members who ap­peared to be at the council meeting for the ramp issue that “everybody on this council wants the ramps open.”

“But,” he said, “they’re not our ramps.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555