City chooses roundabout for 2022 federal funds

Brenda Halvorson

Exponent Reporter

After months of researching the options and costs and benefits of two projects the East Grand Forks city council chose the Bygland Road/Rhinehart Drive roundabout to use federal transportation funds.

The discussions over the months included the sometimes quite strong opinions of the council members, which led to a close vote of 4-3 at their April 20 meeting. Council members Clarence Vetter, Tim Johnson, Marc DeMers and Brian Larson voted in favor of the roundabout while council president Mark Olstad and members Dale Helms and Tim Riopelle opposed the motion.

At stake is approximately $860,000 in federal transportation funding which the city is scheduled to receive next year. The funds are offered on an 80/20 split so a project of about $1.1 million is needed to receive the total amount.

The roundabout is listed on the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program and the Metropolitan Transportation Plan. Its construction was postponed in a previous round of funding.

The second project brought last July for consideration was to reconstruct and add an extension on 10th St. NE adjacent to the industrial park. The costs ran $1.078 million, $1.74 million or $2.14 million, depending which of three options would be chosen. The lack of clarity on being able to recoup some of those costs in assessments to adjacent property owners was a stumbling block for some council members.

The roundabout to relieve traffic congestion on that corridor is estimated at $1.6 million, which does not include the cost of acquiring property, if needed. That unknown cost was one of the reasons some council members were hesitant to make the commitment.

This was also the concern of Mayor Steve Gander, who does not have a vote on the council. He compared the situation to starting to build a house on land you didn’t own, saying it put the city in a less favorable bargaining position.

Gander advocated for finding a way to move both projects forward, saying it wasn’t a waste of time or resources if the city planned to do both projects.

“I’m not in favor of this being the only project available for those federal dollars,” Gander said. “I don’t think it’s a good strategic move.”

Ellis Austin, a long time resident of the area, asked to address the council. He agreed with Gander’s point and added a few of his own, including pedestrian safety, space for buses and trucks in the roundabout and access to the Orton’s station at that intersection, all of which have been discussed by the council at previous meetings. Austin advocated for putting signal lights at the intersection.

Helms has been vocal in his opposition to the roundabout for a number of reasons, including those listed above. He has also suggested signal lights or stop signs. He said he’s received emails from and spoken with property owners in the area who did not want the project.

“A roundabout is not going to solve the problem,” Helms said, saying traffic lights are better for pedestrian safety. “It’s a bad spot for a roundabout.”

Olstad said he had spoken to Brandon Boespflug, chair of the East Grand Forks school board, who told him that he did not see the roundabout as a safety feature for the elementary and middle schools because of their distance from the intersection.

Gander said his number one concern for pedestrian safety was at Bygland Road and 13th St. He said a signalized intersection “has to happen sooner rather than later.”

One of the reasons in favor of the roundabout, in addition to alleviating current traffic flow, was to be ready for future growth in the southern part of the city. Olstad questioned whether that benefit would be as great as they hoped.

He also noted that he’s spent the last year driving that road every day and did not feel the problem severe enough to warrant voting for the roundabout.

Steve Emery, city engineer, presented four options for the roundabout at the council’s April 13 work session. Now that the decision has been made the council can begin refining the designs and eventually choose one for implementation. Construction could begin in the summer of 2022.

In other business the council:

• Approved a bid from Opp Construction for the DeMers Ave. and 4th St. NW street and ADA Improvements for construction costs of $250,937.

• Authorized the reduction for on-sale liquor license fees by 25 percent. Licenses run from July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022.

• Approved mutual aid agreements with the Alvarado and Warren Fire and Rescue Services.

• Approved a request from the Senior High School prom committee to close the parking lot on restaurant row the evening of May 8 for the Grand March, weather permitting.

• Approved a request from The Spud Jr. to close a section of 3rd St. for an outdoor concert on May 22 with a maximum capacity of 250, unless pandemic mandates change.

• Approved a request from Sacred Heart School to partially close 3rd St. on May 19 for a school carnival.

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