MOORHEAD — When looking at the Moorhead underpass project on Main Avenue, the complexity is visible.

Cranes, dirt-moving equipment and a crew of about 70 workers can be seen throughout numerous parts of the project, from the northeast side, where a new street is being paved near Moorhead High School, to the southwest side, where a temporary railroad track divides the project but where workers are still hard at it.

In the middle of it all is the gigantic "hole," where the underpass will be built to allow cars on both Main Avenue and 21st Street to breeze underneath the three railroad track bridges to ease traffic. The hole is deep enough that the Main Avenue and 21st Street driving surfaces will be about 35 feet lower than the old roadway surfaces, which were marred with traffic congestion as trains moved in and out, according to Moorhead traffic engineer Jonathan Atkins.

As far as the street alignments, Main Avenue will remain in about the same trajectory, but 21st Street is moving about 150 feet to the west before it will connect up with 20th Street South that runs to the interstate.

"I think when this is all done, you'll see a lot more traffic passing through here," said Atkins, who emphasized there will be no stops for trains anymore only stoplights.

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Now, as the $52 million project is at its one-year mark, there are some milestones being reached:

  • Work will begin this week on construction of two of the three railroad bridges, with construction expected to be done by early September. Work will then start on the third bridge.
  • Excavation or digging of the "hole" for the underpass — what Aitkins calls the major task in the project — is approaching the 50 percent mark.
  • 25 percent, or about 5 miles, of the pilings in the project have been driven into the ground. The pilings are large pipes slammed by force 100 to 120 feet into the ground in segments to provide foundation stability for the bridges and retaining walls. In all, Atkins said there will be about 20 miles of the pilings drilled into the clay to provide the foundations needed.

Even at 120 feet, construction crews haven't reached any bedrock, Atkins said. However, what provides the stability is that the clay tightens firmly around the pilings and engineers have calculations to determine what's needed.

Another visible and complex part of the project is construction of probably the largest storm sewer lift station in the city that will carry away rain water in the underpass. Atkins said it will mean there'll be no standing water, even during heavy rains.

The paving on the north side of the project is also another step forward, as Atkins said by mid-August the new roadway near the Casey's General Store and the west entrance to the high school should be complete.

On the south side, the temporary railroad bridge that carries both BNSF and the Otter Tail Valley Railroad trains won't be removed until the new rail bridges are completed.

So for all of the moving and complex parts to the project, Atkins said he and other officials still can't answer the big question of if the underpass can open to traffic before winter.

"It's still too hard to tell," Atkins said. If all things click and with not a lot of rainfall, it could be open, he said, however he doesn't want to get anyone's hopes up.

One thing that could help is Ames Construction's request to have another 24-hour construction schedule for three weeks in early September for overnight excavation and hauling. The Moorhead City Council will vote on the issue at their Monday, July 22, meeting. The last three-week stretch of around-the-clock work in June apparently didn't cause significant disruption to the neighborhoods, although the council is still looking for any feedback..

Despite the variables, what Atkins does know is that when it's done it will be a "game-changer" for traffic in the city. He also noted that the railroad's new triangular wye that will not be completed until next year will allow rail traffic to flow smoother, too. That will end the long waits in downtown Moorhead at some railway crossings, where drivers can wait up to 20 minutes as the trains back up from the underpass to allow switches to other tracks. The wye will solve that problem.

So the complexity of the project will one day soon turn into more simplicity.

In other project updates this week:

Main Avenue in downtown Fargo: The underground work is done, except for in the roundabout phase of the project near Veterans Memorial Bridge, which will start in August. Dakota Underground crews have installed about 5,800 feet or 1.1 miles of sanitary sewer, storm sewer and water main pipes, including at the Broadway intersection that was just finished over the weekend.

Crews are starting the paving of Main Avenue between 4th Street and Broadway this week. It will take about two weeks, with cure time, to get the concrete pouring done. Curb and gutter are being done at the same time.

Drivers can use Main Avenue just west of Broadway all day and the Depot parking lot after 5 p.m. daily or on weekends to access businesses such as Rhombus Guys, Wimmer Diamonds and the Front Street Taproom.

Sheyenne Street in West Fargo: Concrete is going down daily throughout the entire almost $60 million Sheyenne Street project that last year was poured from 13th Avenue to near Interstate 94, and this year is being constructed from the interstate area south to 40th Avenue West.

The first deck pour on the northbound bridge that is being expanded over the diversion channel will start this Thursday, July 25. There will be some changes in the temporary roads leading to RJ's gas station and the neighborhoods in that area. In addition, the large crane that was used to construct the new bridge over the diversion channel has been removed.

On the south end of the project, curb and gutter and paving of some turn lanes were completed between 37th Avenue West and 40th Avenue West. Work is moving farther north with underground work to start. Work is also starting on the new shared use path for bicyclists and pedestrians on the west side of Sheyenne Street.

On the north end of the project by the new Hornbacher's, work on Beaton Drive will last until the end of July keeping the road's access to Sheyenne Street closed until then.

52nd Avenue in south Fargo: The big deal here is that the Veterans Boulevard intersection closed Saturday, but the 53rd Street South intersection reopened to provide residential and business access. Paving begins at 4 a.m. Monday morning, July 22, on the westbound lanes from the bridge over the drainage ditch through Veterans Boulevard.

The 63rd Street intersection, which provides access to neighborhoods, is reopening to north-south traffic by late evening on Wednesday, July 24.

10th Street North in Fargo: The 10th Street North underpass is open to northbound traffic, relieving traffic congestion on the west side of downtown and ending a project that stretched into a second year. The opening of the street started with one lane last Tuesday, and now both lanes are open. Work on the east sidewalk in the underpass is still underway but could open by the end of the week. New railings are installed on both sides. The use of University Drive to the west as a detour is over. It's back to two-lane traffic heading south, ending another traffic congestion area on the west side of the downtown area.