Council trying to find a way to address tunnel condition

Hunter Herbaugh
Sunday, September 20, 2020
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Hunter Herbaugh photo The underground walking tunnel is full of graffiti and standing water.

Following discussion on the underground pedestrian tunnel during the meeting of the city’s Street Committee, the topic was addressed by the city council at their meeting on Tuesday evening. Discussion was centered around what to do about the dilapidated state of the tunnel, as some members of the council expressed their frustrations with its current conditions.

The underground pedestrian tunnel has connected South Anderson Avenue to Merrill Avenue for decades and is owned by BNSF Railway. While it has served as a route between the South side neighborhood and downtown, it has also become the target of intense vandalism, with the glass panes being broken regularly and vulgar graffiti covering the entire wall. Added to that is poor drainage that results in water pooling throughout and a foul smell that seems to be constant.

Councilwoman Betsey Hedrick voiced the strongest concerns for the tunnel, providing pictures to the council to highlight the issue, saying that the current conditions are “unacceptable for the public.”

“It’s absolutely disgusting and I haven’t seen it this bad until now,” Hedrick said. “One of the issues that I think is a safety issue is the lights are painted black or red, and so it’s darker than it should be, it’s dark than it’s supposed to be, and the graffiti is absolutely horrible, it’s vulgar and kids really should not have to look at that stuff.”

Councilman Clyde Mitchell informed the council that he had spoken with Cory Knutson, a structures manager for BNSF, who told him that the city really can’t do anything to address the issues with the tunnel because it is a BNSF structure and BNSF can’t close it without the city requesting them to do so. The nearest structures maintenance crew is located in Mandan, and according to Mitchell, the tunnel is a low priority for them.

“Technically, we can’t even have volunteer groups go clean it up or community service people clean it up. The city can’t go in and clean it up and paint it, it’s all railroad,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell also pointed out that the water in the tunnel will likely freeze this winter and probably won’t thaw until spring, making it a hazard to anyone walking in the tunnel. Councilman Mike Dryden asked if BNSF would be open to temporarily closing the tunnel if it became a hazard but Mitchell said that based on his conversations, any closure would be permanent, and given their inability to commit resources to the tunnel’s maintenance, closing it was the option that Knutson seemed to favor.

Councilman Doug Baker questioned if it would be possible for the city to be held liable should something happen to someone in the tunnel. Mitchell noted that the city requested the tunnel in the first place and had the power to request its closure. Should a lawsuit be filed, it’s possible that both the city and the railroad could be named.

Mitchell added that the local BNSF crews have even discussed the tunnel’s broken glass at their monthly safety meetings, but due to the tunnel’s low priority for structures crews, not much action has been taken.

While most of the discussion centered around possibly closing the tunnel, councilman Leon Baker noted that some community work has been able to be done on BNSF owned structures previously, pointing to the recent murals painted onto the side of the Barry Street underpass. Those murals were painted as part of a beautification effort by the Greater Glendive Community Foundation and they had to get approval from the railroad. He wondered if the GGCF would be interested in taking care of the pedestrian tunnel, should they be able to get the blessings of BNSF.

Ultimately, the issue was assigned to the city’s Street Committee for further research to determine what the city’s best course of action would be.

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