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Erik Burgess, Published April 14 2014

Moorhead OKs fourth try at federal grant for underpass; more costs shifted to taxpayers

MOORHEAD – The city could be close to finally scoring federal money for a long-sought-after railroad underpass near the high school here.

But to win a highly competitive grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, city leaders will look to taxpayers to pick up a larger local share of the $41.6 million project.

City Council members voted unanimously Monday to allow the city engineer to apply for a federal grant to help pay for the railroad underpass at Main Avenue and 20th/21st Street.

This will be the fourth consecutive year the city has applied for the TIGER discretionary grant, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.

But this time, Moorhead will only ask for about $19 million from the feds, shifting more of the cost onto residents through property taxes and special assessments.

Moorhead failed to get the award in previous years because it was asking for too much money, but with this year’s application, City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said he hopes they’ve found the sweet spot.

Moorhead asked the feds for between $22 and $28 million in previous years.

Some council members suggested, perhaps somewhat jokingly, that Zimmerman lower the city’s request from $19 million to something like $18,990,000 – evoking the infomercial idea of paying $18.99 for something instead of $19.

City Councilwoman Nancy Otto said lowering the cost by even a few thousand dollars perhaps “gives us even a little bit of an edge.”

With $19 million paid by the feds, about $10.9 million would need to be covered locally through general obligation improvement bonds. The local share in previous years was between $3.2 and $7.6 million.

Under the local funding scenarios proposed by Zimmerman, a typical single-family household in a special assessment district could pay anywhere from $908 to $1,815 over a 25-year period.

Across the city, property taxes would go up on the median-value home by an estimated $15 to $28 in the year that the bond is issued, Zimmerman said.

The council didn’t approve a local funding plan on Monday.

The rest of the project would be covered by about $9 million from municipal state aid and about $2.7 million from BNSF Railway.

The proposed special assessment district would cover downtown, as well as a chunk of southeast Moorhead north of Interstate 94.

Downtown would benefit from the project because the underpass would mean trains would no longer have to back up into downtown, said City Manager Michael Redlinger.

Some council members wondered if the assessment district couldn’t be larger, arguing that the underpass will ease traffic snarls and improve safety citywide.

“We can assess as large an area as the council will adopt and John can defend,” Zimmerman said, referring to City Attorney John Shockley.

Zimmerman said he would also continue to look for other sources of state money, which would lower the local cost.

The grant application is due April 28. If Moorhead wins a grant, construction could start in fall 2015, and the project would take two years to build.


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