MN-ND flood fight shows not all public works spending gets applause

Life along the Red River of the North in Fargo is changing
Life along the Red River of the North in Fargo, N.D., is changing dramatically thanks, in part, to efforts to protect the city from river flooding, including a newly constructed floodwall.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News | File March

President Trump wants to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure and the proposals are pouring in. Some of that potential spending, however, is bound to make Minnesota leaders very unhappy.

North Dakota's governor and the mayor of Fargo, N.D., have been lobbying the White House to include funding for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project. If the president includes the $2.2 billion project in his proposal, it will set up a showdown with Minnesota, where officials here say Moorhead will get the short end of the deal.

The flood mitigation project is a major effort to prevent damage from future Red River Valley floods. It relies on a large levee south of Fargo-Moorhead. The water would then be diverted in a channel around the cities.

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Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said the plan's backers met with Trump's budget director Mick Mulvaney to discuss the project and he was so enthusiastic he wanted push the timeline faster.

"Mick Mulvaney asked if we could build in four versus six years," Mahoney said. "So, we would look at that if that was the intent of the administration."

The plan relies on $450 million in federal funds. The state of North Dakota and local communities have also committed $1.6 billion. Minnesota, however, has refused to issue permits for the work on its side of the Red River. In December, the state joined a federal lawsuit challenging the project.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is managing the project, says it doesn't need state approval since it's a federal plan. A federal judge is reviewing Minnesota's request to immediately stop construction. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources last year signaled its misgivings about the project when it released its environmental impact statement on the project. The study identified concerns about land that would be flooded when the diversion is used, and how economic and social impacts will be mitigated.

Mike Stevenson of Industrial Builders Inc.
Mike Stevenson of Industrial Builders Inc., positions a cable to lift a cap to be placed atop a floodwall near downtown Fargo, N.D., on April 3. This stretch of wall was nearing completion last month.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR News | File April

The diversion project involved a so-called public-private partnership, a model currently being pushed by President Trump. A private developer, which hasn't been selected yet, will spend $400 million. In exchange for the upfront costs and thirty years of maintenance, the developer will be paid back in future sales tax payments.

According to Mahoney, Trump's budget chief said he would highlight the project with the White House infrastructure team.

The White House did not return calls to discuss Trump's $1 trillion infrastructure plan or Mulvaney's meeting with Mahoney last month. But it's clear the flood project is getting attention in Washington.

Two people who advised the White House on infrastructure included the Fargo-Moorhead flood project on their wish lists. Dan Slane, who worked on Trump's transition team, included the project on his list.

"What drove it was all of the damage that flooding can do and how we're much better off trying to prevent it," he said. Slane, though, found out from a reporter's questions that Minnesota was fighting the project in court.

"I don't think it's very prudent to be spending public dollars right now," said Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.

Landwehr's agency last year denied a permit allowing for the construction of a flood wall. The diversion plan, he said, protects North Dakota land that is already in a floodplain at the expense of Minnesota land that was never flooded before.

Landwehr believes Trump should consider infrastructure projects with universal backing before committing to the Fargo-Moorhead plan.

"If I were a member of Congress looking at how to allocate funds," he said, "if I was a member of (the federal Office of Management and Budget) looking how to allocate funds I would certainly put greater emphasis on those projects where there is unanimous support and I don't expect any sort of legal challenges than I would put support on a project where this likely to be litigation for some time."

To see the other infrastructure projects being considered by the Trump administration, visit www.apmreports.org

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