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Moorhead underpass plans on track, but city wrestles with future of First Avenue South

Business owners Jim Haney, left, and Steve Ness are among those opposed to closing First Avenue South in Moorhead to make way for a railroad shortcut as part of the Main Avenue and 20th/21st Street South underpass. Dave Wallis / The Forum1 / 3
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Railroad signal lights and traffic lights make for a visually busy intersection at Main Avenue SE and 20th/21st Street in Moorhead. The highly anticipated underpass will separate the streets and tracks to improve safe traffic flow. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 3

MOORHEAD — This city is moving forward with a highly anticipated underpass near Moorhead High School, but the $53 million project has one hitch before construction kicks off next year: the proposed closure of First Avenue South.

City engineer Bob Zimmerman said Moorhead has been trying to get the underpass built at the intersection of southeast Main Avenue and 20th/21st Street South since 2002. The city repeatedly requested state funding to alleviate congestion and make the area safer, but a successful plea to help pay for the underpass didn't come until earlier this year.

Now, $42 million from the state's capital bonding program is going toward the project — "an incredible amount of funding for this project," Zimmerman said, adding that funding was the setback all along, but now the barrier is what to do with First Avenue South.

Keeping the avenue open would increase the local cost of the project by about $3 million, Zimmerman said. BNSF Railway agreed to contribute $2 million to fund the avenue's closure in order to create a wye, or railroad shortcut bisecting the avenue. Under that plan, First Avenue South would no longer be a through street. Instead, cul-de-sacs would bookend the tracks.

Business owners along First Avenue South and City Council member Steve Gehrtz oppose the closure and prefer an option to put a rail crossing at the wye.

Last week the council voted to move forward with the proposed plan per Gehrtz's suggestion that the wye be an "alternate." That means when the city seeks construction contracts in January 2018, the wye would be separate from the overall underpass project.

The council recently debated what to do with First Avenue South — leave it open or close it.

Council member Heidi Durand said the city should close the avenue given the additional cost to taxpayers should it be left open. She and seven other council members unanimously voted to move forward with the wye as an alternate.

The future of First

Jim Haney, owner of Haney Photography, 1610 Main Ave., said First Avenue South is an important and convenient roadway for traffic traveling northeast and southwest. Haney cited to the council data showing the avenue is used by 3,000 vehicles daily.

Richard Pierce, owner of Pierce Homes, 1714 Main Avenue, said the avenue is the main access road for transporting modular and manufactured homes into the area.

"If our access is blocked to our sales location...it would put us out of business," Pierce said in a letter to the council, adding that he would accept a special assessment not to exceed $5,000 to keep the avenue open.

In a separate letter to the council, Haney said he supported a rail crossing at the avenue, but would not support a special assessment to do so.

Steve Ness said he recently purchased land along the First Avenue South corridor near JC Chumley's for his insurance company.

"We had no idea that this was an option. Certainly we don't like the expectation of more assessments," Ness said.

Council member Joel Paulson argued that the community is unaware of the city considering closing the avenue because the plan has not been brought to a public hearing for feedback.

A general public meeting for the project is slated for sometime this fall, though a specific date is not set, Zimmerman said. Come 2018, a public hearing as part of a regularly scheduled council meeting will also give residents a chance to provide feedback.

BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said the wye would benefit residents and the railway.

"The wye and underpass project will reduce train impacts for Moorhead residents," McBeth said in an email. "Constructing an underpass eliminates potential conflict for motor vehicles and trains that exists at an at-grade crossing. We work to eliminate at-grade crossings where possible, which improves public safety. BNSF will continue communicating with the city as conversations on the project continue."

Some council members wondered aloud if either of these options for First Avenue South would present safety issues.

Moorhead Police Chief David Ebinger told the council that, "once the underpass is open, we don't see an issue with public safety on this."

In a written statement sent to The Forum, Sherm Syverson, senior director of F-M Ambulance, said the planned closure of First Avenue South "will have minimal to no impact on F-M Ambulance's ability to serve patients in that area."

"In fact," Syverson stated, "the long-term results of this proposed change will allow for better access for EMS by avoiding train delays."

Underpass overview

Apart from First Avenue South, motorists will notice three other roadway changes once the project is complete.

A section of 21st Street South in front of Whale of a Wash and Mick's Scuba will no longer exist once the underpass is complete. The plan is to create a new access road, yet to be named, that will connect Main Avenue and Fourth Avenue. The new road will snake around the storefronts and a vacant lot the city acquired for the project where a Holiday gas station used to be.

A cul-de-sac at the east-end of 5th Avenue South will make 20th/21st Street inaccessible from the avenue. Residents will need to use Sixth Avenue South to access 20th Street.

The access to Main Avenue from Fourth Avenue South and 19th Street South near Tastee Freez will shift slightly to the west with a new road connecting the two avenues. A cul-de-sac will be placed where the east-end of Fourth Avenue meets 19th Street.

On the city's website, under the engineering page, there are animations available to illustrate what the roadways will look like and how they will operate once the underpass is complete.

Zimmerman said it provides a "good flavor for what the project's going to be."

The goal is to get details about First Avenue South all taken care of in time for the city to seek building contracts after the first of the year, with construction starting in 2018.

"Because of the size of the project, it's going to be at least two years of construction," he said.

Zimmerman said he hopes by the next council meeting to have a "pretty clear direction of where we're at" with the underpass plan and design.

The project is likely to come up at the next council meeting Monday, Oct. 9.

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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