FARGO – After 26 years, the private owners of Fargo-Moorhead’s only toll bridge must hand it over to the two cities, a judge ruled Wednesday.
The decision was a victory for the city of Moorhead, which sued Bridge Co. and the city of Fargo in May, arguing that, according to a contract signed in 1986, it was time for the bridge to transfer into public hands and that the company was exploiting the bridge for private profit.
Bridge Co. entered into a 25-year agreement in 1986 with both cities to construct, maintain and operate the bridge between Fargo’s 12th Avenue North and Moorhead’s 15th Avenue North and earn revenue from tolls.
Judge Frank Racek wrote that “the Bridge Company is required to transfer the bridge to the Cities of Fargo and Moorhead” without specifying a timeline, in an order filed in Cass County District Court.
Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said the city would present a timeline on future plans for the bridge next week. Whether the 75-cent toll will remain “hasn’t been determined yet,” he said.
Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said she thought the toll would be removed after the bridge is turned over to the two cities.
“I think that’s the intent, really,” she said. “It really wasn’t to take over their income, but to make it easier for citizens.”
Williams said the toll may stick around “for a tad” depending on costs the city faces. “But it would be short-lived.”
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Friday he is concerned about the financial impact of taking over the bridge, which he says needs hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs.
“I don’t have any problem with … taking away the toll,” Walaker said. “It’s just I don’t feel that it’s our responsibility to take on any more debt for the repair of the structure."
The 1986 contract gave Bridge Co. control over the bridge until Feb. 5 of this year, after accounting for 249 days when the bridge closed because of flooding. The city of Fargo offered to extend the contract for another five years, but the city of Moorhead balked.
The company, which is owned by Clifford Moore and James Dixon, argued that it needed more time before handing the bridge over because it had more than $480,000 in debt stemming from construction, maintenance, and repairs – arguments the judge dismissed.
Racek wrote that the construction loan was paid off by Feb. 5 and that “all repair and maintenance expenses have been paid.”
Racek also found that the company’s profits in 2012 totaled $215,982. The toll generated $399,623 that year.
The company claimed “they were entitled to a 5 percent management fee … but they were never paid,” the judge wrote. But the judge noted that “there is nothing in the agreement between the parties guaranteeing a 5 percent management fee.”
Bridge Co. also said it had a little more than $100,000 in debt for maintenance costs, but Racek argued that they were irrelevant because “these expenses do not qualify as ‘major’ maintenance and repairs.”
An attorney for Bridge Co. said his clients “never really made any significant amount of money in 25 years.”
“What the city of Fargo and my clients wanted was simply the right to operate the bridge for another several years,” Randolph Stefanson said.
“The city of Fargo acted promptly, appropriately,” he said. “The city of Moorhead failed to do that.”
Stefanson said he will meet with his clients Monday to discuss the possibility of an appeal.
Thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes to North Dakota and Minnesota need to be paid before Bridge Co. transfers the bridge to the cities, the judge wrote.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5599