Moorhead to seek federal funds to help pay for new $82M rail underpass

City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said the current $82 million cost estimate will change as the project proceeds through milestones, including property acquisitions, final design, an agreement with the BNSF Railway and construction bids.

Even if the city doesn’t obtain federal funds, Zimmerman said the project will move forward. The federal assistance, though, could help reduce the local cost for taxpayers and also cover any other project expenses that might emerge.

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Construction isn’t slated to start until 2024, but Zimmerman said there has already been “behind the scenes” work on the project. The underpass will go underneath two railroad tracks, provide a much-needed traffic relief valve downtown and improve city safety with shorter response times from firefighters and police based on the north side of the tracks.

It’s unlikely the project construction can start before 2024, but its possible work on relocating water, electrical and sewer lines could start sooner, Zimmerman said.

The project’s current funding stands at $62 million from the Minnesota bonding bill approved last fall and $15.8 million from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which is leading the project and considers it as one of its top priorities. An estimated $3.7 million is coming from BNSF, $3 million from Moorhead and $500,000 from Clay County.

City Governmental Affairs Director Lisa Bode urged the council to hire the Primacy Strategy Group to assist with lobbying for federal aid for the project under a 12-month contract at a cost of $54,000.

Primacy Strategy Group president Ryan Kelly and Emily Tranter, a lead lobbyist in federal government relations, told the council it appears to be an opportune time to obtain federal funding for infrastructure. Earmarks for individual projects are returning after more than a decade and with President Joe Biden proposing a massive transportation-focused infrastructure bill.

On top of that, Tranter said there is a lot of flexibility in the American Rescue Plan Act with Kelly adding that additional funding for the city could be in the $5-6 million range and $13 million for the county.

Bode also noted that the city has been seeking a special grant called BUILD from the US. Department of Transportation for five years. Federal officials gave last year’s application an “A” grade, though they didn’t award a grant that can reach as high as $25 million.

Zimmerman added that transportation officials “highly recommended” funding for the underpass and other projects across the county, another encouraging sign.

Hopes are high that the city can finally obtain that funding and that the lobbying firm could help in that effort.

Tranter said there are “many paths” besides federal funding for Moorhead to obtain federal funds to reduce costs for local taxpayers. She said other city projects could also find federal funding this year.

“There are multiple hills to climb, but opportunities (for funding) are rapidly developing,” Tranter said. “It’s a really interesting time.”

City Councilmember Shelly Dahlquist wondered how many other clients of the lobbying group would be competing for the same dollars.

Tranter said members of Congress representing the area need to offer strong support for the project and are aware of the aid request.

As for other early work on the project, Zimmerman said another priority is to begin work on buying 14 parcels of land in the project area. The council approved hiring SRF Consulting Group of Fargo to assist MnDOT and the city.

Zimmerman said the city would lead the process to allow city staff to engage with the 11 business owners who own those parcels to make sure they are aware of all assistance, including relocation funding, and to urge them to keep their businesses in Moorhead.

The city owns eight parcels of land in the project area.

Engineering consultant KLJ will also help with the federal BUILD grant application, and Zimmerman said MnDOT has agreed to pay for that service.

Zimmerman said the preliminary engineering and environmental assessment, which started in 2018, should be completed this summer. So far there haven’t been any significant environmental impacts found, he said, although there likely will be contaminated soil that needs to be removed.

Another major step, he said, will be finalizing funding and gaining approval from the BNSF Railway.

Moorhead’s other railway underpass project on Southeast Main Avenue and 20th Street, which is in its fourth year and had a price tag of about $52 million, is expected to be completed by fall.