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Fate of 76-year-old Red River bridge uncertain as counties look for repair funds

HILLSBORO, N.D.--County commissioners from Polk and Traill counties will meet in Hillsboro Tuesday to consider the fate of the Nielsville Bridge, a 76-year-old bridge spanning the Red River that has been closed since Sept. 14.

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The Neilsville Bridge. (Photo by Eric Hylden/ Forum News Service)

HILLSBORO, N.D.--County commissioners from Polk and Traill counties will meet in Hillsboro Tuesday to consider the fate of the Nielsville Bridge, a 76-year-old bridge spanning the Red River that has been closed since Sept. 14.

The bridge, located just west of Nielsville, Minn., was closed after a 2-by-3-foot hole developed in the bridge deck's eastbound lane. The closure came as Red River Valley farmers were beginning the fall sugar beet harvest, forcing many to take detours, some 15 miles or longer.

County commissioners on both the North Dakota and Minnesota sides of the Red River initially discussed making temporary repairs to reopen the bridge this fall. However, that timetable quickly became unrealistic.

When they meet Tuesday, commissioners will discuss four alternatives:

-- Replacing the bridge with a 700-foot-long structure at an estimated cost of about $5 million.

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-- Replacing the bridge deck for $400,000 to $500,000.

-- Repairing the damaged bridge deck for $300,000 to $350,000.

-- Permanently closing the bridge.

Governments on both sides of the state would have to share the costs.

Polk County Engineer Rich Sanders told county commissioners recently the center pier and bridge abutments are not stable. He also said the bridge has been under water about once every four years, on average, over the past couple of decades.

No official action has been taken by county commissions in either state, but Polk County Commissioner Warren Strandell said his commission favors replacing the bridge.

"Long-range, by far, it's the best idea," he said. "Polk County doesn't have the money earmarked, but we've been working with (Minnesota Department of Transportation) to come up with some funding plan."

Funds appear to be tighter on the west side of the river.

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After receiving no commitments from the North Dakota Department of Transportation when it traveled to Bismarck for a meeting last week, Traill County commissioners generally agreed that building a new bridge probably is not financially feasible.

Informally, three of Traill County's five commissioners indicated at a county meeting last week they would favor making the minimal repairs to the deck, with Polk County splitting the cost.

Traill County Commissioner Ken Nesvig, who lives about 8 miles from the bridge, said the minimal repair project is not what he would prefer to do, but it may be the most feasible.

"We'll have to hash it out. We're still looking into the options," he said. "The Nielsville Bridge is a vital link for people to get across. You hate to see it disappear."

The two county commissions do not expect to make any final decisions Tuesday. However, they hope they can find some common ground to move forward.

Old, new bridges

According to NDDOT, 38 vehicle bridges connect North Dakota and Minnesota over the Red River.

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The two oldest, both built in 1929, are the Sorlie Bridge on DeMers Avenue between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the Dakota Avenue Bridge between Wahpeton, N.D., and Breckenridge, Minn. Both bridges since have been refurbished to some degree--the Sorlie Bridge in 1986 and the Dakota Avenue Bridge in 1987.

Six new bridges have been built across the Red River since the 1997 flood. They include the Thompson Bridge south of Grand Forks and the Drayton Bridge in Pembina County, both built in 2010; the Caledonia Bridge in Traill County, 2009; Gardner Bridge, east of Gardner, N.D., in Cass County, 2007; Cass County Road 20 Bridge, 2006; and the Main Avenue Bridge, Fargo, 2004.

The Nielsville Bridge is one of two structurally deficient bridges that connect the two states. Both cross the Red River in Traill and Polk counties. The steel-truss bridge with a concrete deck was built in 1939 and was dedicated in 1940.

The other is the Climax Bridge, a steel-truss bridge near Climax, Minn., built in 1957 about 6 miles north of the Nielsville Bridge.

The structurally deficient rating does not necessarily mean that a bridge is unsafe.

Rather, it designates that either the deck, the superstructure or the substructure has a condition that warrants attention. That could be as simple as an update to a concrete bridge deck or a bridge deck overlay, according to the NDDOT handbook.

Neither the Nielsville nor the Climax bridge is wide enough to allow the crossing of larger, modern farm equipment.

Four bridges, three in Fargo and one in Grand Forks, are rated as functionally obsolete.

That rating has nothing to do with the structural integrity of the bridge, according to the NDDOT handbook. Rather, it means that some part of the bridge does not meet a design standard, such as vertical clearance or deck width.

Related Topics: RED RIVER
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