A $7 million project that would extend Morningside Avenue to 16th Street on the northeast side of Glencoe is nearly to the point of bidding for contractors. But frustration over its timeline and expenses brought about a delay at Tuesday morning's McLeod County Board meeting when two items were tabled for additional discussion.
"I've had support (for the project) and my support is eroded," said Board Vice Chair Doug Krueger.
The project is meant to give motorists passing through the city a faster route to and from U.S. Highway 212, improve safety by moving traffic from the high school, and allow motorists to avoid downtown. The cost has ticked up over time, such as when the board was told it needed to fund wetland restoration. State aid will fund $2.35 million of the project, with most of the remaining expenses to be split between Glencoe and McLeod County.
Tuesday's delay came about due to two items regarding the project. McLeod County engineer John Brunkhorst asked board members to approve a maintenance agreement with Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company. TC&W owns a portion of the land Morningside Drive is proposed to cross. The agreement is not to exceed $1.29 million with funds from the highway construction budget.
"You touch a railroad and its expensive," said McLeod County Attorney Michael Junge. "There are more things than meet the eye here."
The maintenance agreement includes improvements to safety and emergency vehicle access for which TC&W will largely pay. Brunkhorst said working with the railroad does seem like a long process, but he added that other counties have faced bigger delays.
Brunkhorst also asked the board to approve $74,010 to reimburse the Short Elliot Hendrickson engineering firm for additional work.
"During the design of the project, there have been numerous project changes and unforeseen challenges," Brunkhorst said.
John Rodeberg of SEH said that when the firm takes a contract, it provides a list of tasks it will accomplish and the cost of the time that will be spent on those tasks. As the project has changed, such as shifting away from a state-aid project, so too has SEH's responsibilities. The railroad, for example, required federal money to be involved in the project for legal protections. But the inclusion of federal money meant more studies, such as noise reviews and environmental reviews. Drainage issues also increased SEH's work, Rodeberg said, as did an extension of about a year on the project.
"I got hit pretty hard over the weekend," said Board Chair Joe Nagel, adding that Glencoe residents appear to be split on the Morningside project. "Is this typically what happens when you have overrun? ... You didn't come to the board and say, 'Hey, we are going to run over, just so you know.'"
Rodeberg said SEH did speak with Brunkhorst.
"We maybe should have come to you guys," he said.
"It just hurts a little bit," Nagel said, "$74,000 in a ($7 million) project maybe doesn't seem like much. It's in the budget. But it's a question we need to ask. ... I felt more of a surprise than I'm comfortable with."
Krueger said his support for the project has dwindled as costs increase.
"The county taxpayer is paying that burden," Krueger said. "We've got other roads to fix. We were supposed to be ready last fall. We postponed this for none of these reasons (on the agenda). We just postponed it because it was getting late in the season. We were supposed to get favorable bidding (early in 2020)."
He added that the project should have been out for bids by now.
Brunkhorst said delays were due to work with the railroad, and that doing so was a long, drawn out process.
"The pecking order in this world," said Junge, "is water goes first, railroads go second, utilities go third, state highways go fourth, county highways go fifth, city highways go sixth. When you are that low on the pecking order, the railroad holds all the cards. They determine the pace of the process. We are not in charge of our process. They are."
"The railroad has almost sovereignty in this corridor," Board Member Ron Shimanski later added.
The County Board discussed delaying the two decisions until the next meeting in two weeks in order to take time to answer questions and review the project's complete expenses. Junge asked Brunkhorst if there were any risks in delaying. Brunkhorst said a delay could cause the railroad to doubt the agreement, and it would push back the bidding window further. He said that once the two items before the board are approved, the railroad will need to approve the agreement, the state will need to approve, and then bids can be sought.
"I don't know if any other road project on my years on the board has been more controversial," said Board Member Paul Wright. "It's generally not good to make a decision when there is a lot of frustration in the air."
Expenses were discussed at a Wednesday workshop. The county will compile a report to be publicly available.