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Erik Burgess, Published March 17 2014

For fourth time, Moorhead seeks federal help on underpass south of high school

MOORHEAD – If at first you don’t succeed, try three more times.

Moorhead will apply this year – for the fourth consecutive year – for a multimillion-dollar federal grant to help it build a railroad underpass at Main Avenue and 20th/21st Street.

But in order to score money from the feds to help pay for the $36.9 million project, the city might have to increase its local share of project costs by using bonds paid for with special assessments and property taxes. It could ultimately raise the city’s debt.

“It’s going to cost the city of Moorhead some money to get to that sweet spot,” Councilman Steve Gehrtz said at City Council meeting on March 10.

Council members gave unanimous approval on March 10 to spend $10,800 to update and prepare the grant proposal for another submittal this year.

Building an underpass at the intersection just a few blocks south of Moorhead High School has long been a council priority, even before train traffic increased due to the oil being hauled out of western North Dakota.

City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said it’s tough to say if Moorhead has a better shot this year at one of the grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“They receive far more applications than they have funding for, so it’s very competitive,” he said. “To get as far in the process as we have, and the only ding being we’re asking for too much, really means the project is a very, very good project.”

In previous applications, the city asked for about $25 million from the so-called TIGER discretionary grant, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.

In the past, municipal state aid covered $4 million of the proposed Moorhead project, BNSF Railway chipped in about $2.5 million and the local cost – proposed to be paid for with general obligation bonds – was between $3.2 and $7.6 million.

By studying which projects previously won grants, Zimmerman said it appears the feds are aiming to give out grants of $12 million to $18 million. Urban applicants can only ask for up to 80 percent of total project cost.

“They want the TIGER grants to be the last piece of the pie,” not the whole pie, Zimmerman said.

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority received a $10 million TIGER award last year for a $16 million project to rebuild and expand a 28-acre cargo dock at the port of Duluth-Superior.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation received a $1.5 million grant last year for a $1.7 million project to improve 15 rural intersections in central Minnesota.

Those were the only two Minnesota award-winners last year. No grants were awarded in North Dakota.

Moorhead hopes to identify other financing plans to lessen its reliance on federal aid, and the council will need to approve one of those plans in the future.

The grant deadline is April 28, and the city would expect to hear back by the end of summer. The project could be bid out by 2015 if all goes smoothly, Zimmerman said. The underpass project would take two years to build.

The feds give priority to projects that help stimulate long-term job growth, which some council members say an underpass will do.

In a council discussion Monday about rail safety, City Manager Michael Redlinger said the city can also make a strong argument that having more-efficient railway crossings in Moorhead – which gets 127 trains a day rumbling through downtown – helps the nation’s energy security.

Zimmerman said the feds must also ensure there is a fair distribution of funds nationwide. It’s a “wildcard” factor in applying for this grant that could work in Moorhead’s favor, he said.

“In terms of the geographic distribution, maybe you turn up a winner sometime,” Zimmerman said.

Mayor Del Rae Williams said she hopes the national spotlight on train safety following a fiery derailment in Casselton, N.D., in December will help Moorhead’s cause.

“There isn’t probably a thing more often citizens talk to us about than trains,” she said.

Redlinger said the application is being updated to include new information about Casselton.

“I really hope they see in our TIGER application the sense of urgency,” Councilwoman Brenda Elmer said.

Gehrtz said it’s hard to put a dollar value on how much the quality of life for Moorhead residents would be improved with an underpass to avoid trains near downtown.

“I think we have to apply for it because it’s a $37 million project … and without the TIGER grant funds, this isn’t going to happen,” he said. “I think it’s important to our community just from a connectivity standpoint.”

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