Singing the construction blues

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The Moorhead City Council was singing those ol’ construction blues on Monday, as city staff detailed the need to confront two situations that add complications to an already-complicated construction season.
Delays are almost inevitable, but they have consequences. That’s what city engineer Bob Zimmerman explained about the massive 20/21st Street underpass project, which balances work by the city’s contractor, Ames Construction, with the schedule of BNSF Railway. The railroad is doing a substantial part of the project itself, constructing temporary tracks (a “shoo-fly”) to carry trains while the city contractor builds two bridges over its new route … then coming back to replace them with permanent new rails. The project’s third bridge also skims over the Otter Tail Valley Railroad’s southbound line; that one can’t be constructed until the permanent rails are in place.
Delays in the railroad’s work, then, have compressed the time frame for the road builders. That, in turn, threatens the chances of finishing the public portion of the project by this fall – an outcome eagerly supported by the school district, residents and city alike.
Assistant city engineer Tom Trowbridge said Ames has requested approval of a change in its schedule to try to catch up with the calendar. When it can resume work on the first two bridges – anticipated June 4, when BNSF’s shoo-fly tracks are expected to be complete – the company wants to add a 10-hour overnight shift Monday through Friday to the daytime work crews already at work. The round-the-clock shifts are planned twice – once in June, and then again in September, when Ames can carry out the same tasks for the third bridge. The night work, of course, is of some concern due to the extra activity and, especially, the noise it will generate.
Tom told the council the company has promised to take several steps to minimize disruption overnight. “The night shifts are limited to excavation and hauling, and they’ll be working down in a hole. That helps,” he explained. No loud, disruptive pile-driving will take place in the wee hours. Too, Ames plans to disable the backup beepers on its trucks and lower the volume on other equipment where it’s unavoidable.
Council members Shelly Carlson and Heidi Durand said residents to whom they’ve talked generally favor the amped-up work schedule. “They just want to get it done as soon as possible,” Shelly said. The school district is also anxious to see the realignment wrapped up as quickly as it can be, ideally by next fall’s term. A survey sent by the engineering department to southside residents generated 16 replies, 13 of them in favor of increasing work hours now for a quicker completion. Ultimately the council approved the June night shifts and will review the public’s conclusions before taking on the September extension.

Center Avenue hits a bump
Engineer Bob Zimmerman shared bad news on another complex project. Only one company bid on the major reconstruction of Center Avenue downtown from Fourth to Eight Streets, a key part of the city’s downtown redevelopment hopes – and he urged the council to reject that bid.
The city had proposed restructuring the part of Center Avenue that runs from Wells Fargo to US Bank, converting it from four lanes to a three lane with a dedicated turning lane in the middle. The plan also includes bike lanes connecting to those coming from Fargo. Several driveways are to be closed, trees taken down and the stoplight at Seventh Street removed, all to improve efficiency and driver safety along the heavily traveled route.
The engineering department had anticipated the project’s cost at $2.2 million. Instead, the sole bid, submitted by Opp Construction, was close to $3 million. The contractor cited several factors for its estimate, including risks associated with working downtown and the extensive concrete work required, including some hand labor. The council agreed with Bob’s recommendation to reject the bid. The project will probably be rebid late in the year after some internal consideration of revising the scope of the project and alternate revenue sources.
That means, however, that it cannot be completed this summer after Moorhead Public Service wraps up the sewer work that’s tied up traffic. Downtown property owners had hoped all the work could be done in 2019, along with construction that has closed the Center Avenue bridge.

Taking another crack at BUILD
Finally, the engineer shared some better news with the council, or at least a brighter possibility. After being rejected half a dozen times for a federal BUILD grant, the 11th Street underpass project will be a candidate once again for the highly competitive funding. Partnering with Minnesota Department of Transportation, the city will once again submit a revised grant application to the feds. And this time, Bob said – and the council agreed – the odds seem to lean in Moorhead’s favor.
He explained that last year’s submission fell into the “highly recommended” category at the top of the 850 urban and rural applications reviewed by the U.S.Department of Transportation in awarding $900 million. That near-miss led to a debriefing session with federal officials, who offered the city several tips on improving the project’s cost-benefit calculation.
To revise the proposal will cost about $16,000. Looking at the increasing odds of success, the council approved revising the budget to accommodate the city’s share of about $8,000. “It’s a good investment,” said Ward 3 council member Joel Paulsen, “a minimal cost for the possibility of a large financial return.” The maximum BUILD award is $25 million.

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