UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Countdown begins for long-awaited DeMers Avenue underpass

At UND, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg announces nationwide plan to eliminate unsafe train crossings

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks about a federal grant program to eliminate train crossings in 32 states. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

We’ve all been there. Traveling in either direction along 42nd Street, and coming to the railroad crossing near DeMers Avenue. The lights go on, the bells start ringing, the crossing arms descend, and the motorists wonder: “Will it be five minutes or 35 minutes this time?”

But those days of waiting are numbered, and the countdown started on Monday, June 5.

That’s when U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — on his first visit to North Dakota — held a press conference on the lawn by of the UND Tech Accelerator, with the infamous intersection as a backdrop. There he announced more than half a billion dollars in federal grants aimed at removing or improving train crossings in 32 states.

Locally, the results mean a $30 million grant to create an unimpeded flow of traffic through an underpass on 42nd Street, plus an added, 10-foot-wide shared-use path for cyclists and pedestrians. Similar projects will be built at dozens of railroad crossings across the country.

“Every year, commuters, residents and first responders lose valuable time waiting at blocked railroad crossings, and worse, those crossings are too often the site of collisions that could be prevented,” Buttigieg said. “As part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, we’re improving rail crossings in communities across the country to save lives, time and resources for American families.”

Rodney Clark, associate vice president for public safety and UND chief of police, agreed.

“I think it’s very meaningful; it’ll free up transportation,” Clark told UND Today. “Of course, the biggest thing is it’ll reduce the number of accidents because you’ll have less risk with the train being able to travel freely.”

Buttigieg noted the Greater Grand Forks community has been working to address safety and quality-of-life concerns about the intersection since 1991, when he was in fourth grade. But his tongue-in-cheek comment also showed he knows the stakes when it comes to the intersection that routinely delays people travelling to and from the campus, with some of those delays being the result of accidents.

“This is the site of 69 crashes, 12 injuries and one vehicle-train collision just in the last five years,” he said. “The University has made clear their concerns about the lack of a safe crossing for students walking or biking near here.”

Government officials speak outside at a podium
Sen. Kevin Cramer speaks at a press conference announcing a grant program to eliminate train crossings in 32 states. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today.

Joining Buttigieg at the press conference was Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. Cramer told UND Today that his position as ranking member of the Senate’s Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee helped him advocate for funding for rural train crossings. Once that funding was added to what became known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill, both he and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., lent their support to the application for funding for Grand Forks’ troublesome intersection.

Cramer said working on that infrastructure bill was a high point for him in Congress. Notably, the bill passed unanimously in committee.

“Do you know how hard it is to do things unanimously in Washington?” Cramer asked the gathered crowd. “Well, it’s not that hard when you do the right thing. When you’re talking about one thing that everybody agrees on, and that’s that infrastructure is critical to our safety, to our security, to the efficient movement of goods and services to our entire economy, to our quality of life as well as our standard of living. I’m grateful that we have a (Transportation) Secretary that understands that as well.”

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski and Fire Chief Gary Lorenz also spoke about how the underpass project would improve safety and ease of access for drivers. Lt. Gov. Tammy Miller did as well and expressed gratitude for the federal assistance needed to solve a long-standing issue for Grand Forks and UND.

UND President gives hockey jersey to U.S. Secretary of Transportation
President Andrew Armacost presents Pete Buttigieg with a hockey jersey, while First Lady Kathy Armacost looks on with a smile. Photo by Mike Hess/UND Today

Miller thanked Buttigieg, the U.S. Department of Transportation and North Dakota’s congressional delegation for their support for infrastructure projects across the state. She also thanked U.S. DOT for its support for another program close to UND’s heart — uncrewed aerial systems.

The North Dakota Department of Transportation, she said, was selected in 2020 as one of eight participants in the DOT’s Beyond program, which is continuing the ongoing work of integrating UAS into the national airspace. Partnering in that program is Vantis, the nation’s first-of-its-kind network supporting beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights in the state. The network is housed in the Tech Accelerator on the UND campus.

Alongside that federal partnership, North Dakota remains committed to being a leader in all things UAS, Miller said. She also thanked the Legislature for a $39 million appropriation that will be used to build out the Vantis network, as well as support the Grand Sky UAS business park and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

“With these investments and the ongoing partnership from U.S. DOT, our research universities and the private sector, we are well-positioned to build on our status as the nation’s proving ground for UAS technology and commercialization,” Miller said.

As for Grand Forks’ soon-to-be-improved train crossing, Buttigieg, when asked, said planning and permitting for the project should largely be completed by next year, paving the way for shovels to hit the dirt.

A complete list of all projects included in the U.S. DOT’s Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant Program can be found on the DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration website.

Man watches a train pass at a crossing
A press conference attendee watches a train pass through the DeMers Avenue crossing. A federal program will soon see an underpass built at that location. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today.