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Erik Burgess, Published February 26 2013

Walaker uncertain about buyout of toll bridge linking Moorhead and Fargo

FARGO – Mayor Dennis Walaker isn’t yet convinced that buying the sole toll bridge between Fargo and Moorhead and putting it into public ownership by June is a great idea.

The Moorhead City Council has expressed a desire to pay off the 25-year-old bridge and remove the toll, opening up a channel into the north side of both cities and likely bumping up property values.

The bridge joins 12th Avenue North in Fargo and 15th Avenue North in Moorhead.

But many questions about the bridge remain unanswered for Walaker and his counterparts on the Fargo City Commission, such as how much debt the structure has and which of the two cities would pay for it.

“There are some things that have to be looked at,” Walaker said. “It’s just not as simple as buying a bridge.”

The cities signed a 25-year contract in 1988 with the privately owned Bridge Co. The contract runs out on June 1.

At that time, the cities could either take control of the bridge and assume its debt, or grant a five-year extension and require the company to pay off its delinquent taxes, make necessary repairs to the structure and keep it in good condition over those five years.

If the cities agree to extend the bridge’s contract until 2018, neither Fargo nor Moorhead would be on the hook for any remaining debt at that time.

Two years ago, Fargo passed the five-year extension, after Bridge Co. President Clifford “Kip” Moore said annual flooding has continuously damaged the bridge and the company needed more time to pay off its debt.

Instead of passing the extension at that time, Moorhead tabled it “indefinitely,” said City Manager Michael Redlinger.

The total amount of debt left on the bridge is not entirely clear. An estimated $71,000 would remain on the restructured financing of the bridge itself by June 1, said Wanda Wagner, finance director for Moorhead.

The company also owes $47,435 in back taxes in Clay County from 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, Redlinger said. It also has delinquent taxes in Cass County – around $8,230 owed from 2011 and 2012, said county auditor Michael Montplaisir.

The bridge has an unknown amount of debt from damages and repairs that haven’t been made, Redlinger said.

When Fargo voted to extend the contract in 2011, Moore estimated the cities could be responsible for more than $600,000 in debt and fees if they assumed ownership in 2013. Moorhead city officials disputed that number at the time, saying it was likely closer to $300,000.

Redlinger said it’s still unclear who would be on the hook for paying off those repair costs.

Fargo City Commissioner and Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said he’d love to open the bridge up and remove the toll, if the price is right and the bridge is in good shape.

“Sometimes a fair amount of construction has to be done to bring them up to code,” he said,

Mahoney said he wants city staff from both sides to determine if it’s more cost-effective to continue the bridge’s use or possibly demolish it.

If the two cities cannot come to a consensus on the future of the bridge by June 1, under the contract the company would be allowed to choose whether to continue operating it or turn the structure over to Fargo and Moorhead.

Mahoney said he expects something to be in front of the City Commission within a month.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518