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Wendy Reuer, Published March 29 2013

Toll bridge divides north sides, but not as sharply

FARGO – Some residents here are leery of the Fargo-side consequences of making the only area Red River toll bridge free, while many on the Moorhead side would relish the prospect of a free bridge into Fargo.

But those on both sides of the north-side span agree drivers would benefit.

“I’m sure we would love to see no toll on the bridge, but with that comes increased traffic on the road and we’re not crazy about that,” said Tracy Walvatne, a north Fargo resident.

City officials in Fargo and Moorhead have in recent weeks been debating what to do with the toll bridge connecting 12th Avenue North in Fargo to 15th Avenue North in Moorhead, with plans to create a joint panel to consider buying the bridge in the near future.

The two cities could have granted a five-year extension to Bridge Co. and picked up the structure free of debt in 2018. Fargo city commissioners voted to do so in 2011, but Moorhead’s City Council has tabled the extension to study buying the bridge now and making it free. While neither city has been able to get firm numbers on the bridge cost at this time, Moore said he thinks the final price tag will be around $500,000.

Merrill Piepkorn, a longtime north Fargo resident and president of the Horace Mann Area Neighborhood Association, said residents have not expressed strong opinions or concerns about the bridge recently.

“The original fear was 12th Avenue would become a big thoroughfare and that never really happened,” Piepkorn said.

But Walvatne said residents still would be alarmed if making the bridge free would turn 12th Avenue North into a truck route.

Moorhead Councilwoman Nancy Otto, who represents northside’s Ward 1, has been a staunch advocate of lifting the 75-cent toll on the bridge. Otto said whenever the bridge issue is brought up, she often hears from passionate residents.

“People feel like we should be treated like every other part of town. Every other part of town they can cross a bridge without a toll, and they feel we should have that freedom on the north side of Moorhead and the north side of Fargo,” Otto said.

Moorhead resident Mary Kramvik said she agrees it is only fair to have free access to the bridge.

“For a long time, the users of the bridge have had to pay for it when there aren’t any other bridges in town that users have to pay for,” Kramvik said.

The bridge opened in 1988 and is privately owned by Bridge Co. When it was built, President Clifford “Kip” Moore estimated 3,000 to 3,500 vehicles a day would pass across it.

In 2000, 579,268 vehicles used the bridge, an average of 1,587 a day. By 2008, the last full year the bridge was in operation, annual traffic was down to 506,334 vehicles, or 1,387 a day.

The bridge was forced to shut down intermittently due to flooding damage in 2009 and following years.

Piepkorn said he guesses removing the toll could cause traffic to do double in the area almost instantly.

“I know a lot of people that don’t use it because they don’t want to pay the toll,” Piepkorn said.

A 2003 Metro COG study estimated the daily traffic count would jump to about 8,000 if the toll were removed.

“I would hate to see it double or triple instantly, but then again, maybe that won’t even happen,” Piepkorn said.

Piepkorn said he uses the bridge now and then to get from his north Fargo home to Highway 10 en route to Lakes Country.

Kramvik said easier access to Highway 10 would likely please residents on both sides of the river. She said removing the toll would open access for Minnesotans looking for easier access to Fargo’s biggest attractions, such as West Acres or North Dakota State University.

It would also ease congestion in downtown Moorhead, where train crossings can sometimes slow traffic, she said.

Otto said a free bridge would also appeal to commuters.

“Fargo is looking for workers and that is a definitely a route many people would take to and from work,” Otto said.

While sentiments might not run as strong now, Fargo residents were once adamantly opposed to the private toll bridge.

Fargo residents petitioned to add a measure on the November 1986 city ballot that would have banned toll bridges and roads. Voters defeated it 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent.

A group of residents then sued the city in May 1987, claiming city officials acted improperly in allowing the bridge, but a state district court judge threw out their lawsuit.

Still, Piepkorn said the Horace Mann neighborhood group is an active one, and it will be closely monitoring discussion about the bridge.

“There is more to it than schmaltzy emotions; we’re concerned about property values and traffic. People maintain their homes here, we take pride in our property,” he said.

Otto said sooner or later, the bridge is going to open up access between the cities’ northsides.

“Anyone who lives in those neighborhoods, they have to be aware of that,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530