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With harvest under way, road construction an ongoing battle

FARGO -- Whether it's from seasonal flooding, the effects of freeze-and-thaw or normal wear and tear, roads and bridges in the Red River Valley certainly don't have it easy.

Area transportation officials report similar challenges of limited funding and other resources to maintain the miles of regional infrastructure.

They said priority is key in triaging which issues need attention first, and with the seasonal harvest underway throughout the valley, the quality of roads and bridges becomes even more significant.

"The access to farmsteads, fields, farm-to-market roads -- it's critical that those roads stay in good shape," Cass County Engineer Jason Benson said. "The amount of moisture and high water has added a lot of additional challenges, especially with gravel roads, (but) we still have a great road system."

Officials routinely use long-term plans to detail when specific roadways and bridges are due for upgrades or repairs, but sometimes -- especially recently -- nature intervenes with other plans.

Three years of consistent spring flooding, coupled with this year's additional summer onslaught, have left county engineers working double-time to keep up with repairs.

Cass and Clay counties alone manage at least 1,000 miles of roadway, a large portion of which is made of gravel and can easily be washed out by floodwaters.

City and township roads are overseen by municipal governments, while state transportation departments manage state highways and interstates.

Benson said Cass County crews worked all summer to fix roadways damaged by the deluge of spring and summer flooding.

High waters in some areas prevented crews from finishing projects until September, he said.

In addition to the paving projects planned for this year, several miles of roadway had to be replaced because of the floodwaters, including on Cass Highway 11, he said.

It's a similar juggling act in Clay County, officials there said.

When flooding isn't wreaking havoc on county roads, engineers operate off a 5-year construction plan, the most recent of which runs through 2015.

The plan dictates Clay County's priorities under normal circumstances -- but of course, it all depends on available funding, Assistant Engineer Nathan Gannon said.

Costly damage from consistent flooding doesn't help matters either, Benson said.

"In the past, if we were having a flood every four or six years, then you could absorb some of those costs," he said.

"It definitely becomes more difficult when it's back to back."

Specific totals are still being calculated as to flood-related damage suffered on regional roadways, but officials said the figure is easily in the millions region-wide.

The lack of funding -- regardless of flood disasters -- is easily the biggest obstacle, said Dana Hanson, area spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"It is definitely a challenge to balance the different sources of funding with the needs," she said. "The lack of funding also coincides with our resources and manpower for maintenance issues. ... We have to prioritize based on need and use."

"Those decisions can be tough to make when everyone has different views of which needs are most important," she said.

Roads aren't evaluated by a standard system, so it's difficult to gauge their quality across the region, officials said.

Bridges, though, are a different matter.

National regulations dictate the criteria bridges must meet in terms of structural integrity and safety.

Those federal standards became more prominent after 2007, when the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River during evening rush hour. The accident killed 13 people and injured 145 others.

Transportation officials oversee more than 1,200 bridges across west-central Minnesota and southeast North Dakota -- including Cass and Clay counties.

Most of the bridges are rated well, but several are in need of repairs or upgrades in the near future, area officials said.

The only bridge in west-central Minnesota that's been deemed "functionally obsolete" sits on one of the major arteries connecting Fargo and Moorhead.

Hanson said the westbound lanes of the Interstate 94 bridge are structurally out-of-date, but not necessarily unsafe.

"Functionally deficient" simply means the bridge doesn't meet modern minimum-requirements for new bridges of a similar nature.

That classification for the I-94 bridge stems from its low clearance over Moorhead's Rivershore Drive, Hanson said.

In Cass County, Benson said there are nine bridges -- out of more than 300 -- that are closed or have restrictions on them.

Like other local governments, Benson said there's a schedule set out for the replacement or repair of deteriorated bridges.

Gannon said 23 out of Clay County's 335 bridges are "structurally deficient." Replacement projects are being planned for the near future.

Daum is a writer for The Forum of Fargo-Moorehead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.