Students from Sargent Central School exit the North Dakota Capitol from the only public entrance to the building, which is a tunnel closed to vehicle traffic. The entrance is set for a $2 million remodel in 2020.

Visitors to the North Dakota Capitol will see a new public entrance in the next legislative session. 

State lawmakers set aside $2 million from the Capitol building fund to remodel the south entrance, accessed through a ground floor tunnel long closed to traffic that is the building's only public access point.

The general plan is to enclose the tunnel, according to John Boyle, director of facilities management. The drive lanes, barricaded by columns, would likely be converted to sidewalks and landscaping while the remodel as a whole would stay in line with the Capitol's original architecture. Handicapped accessibility also would be improved, Boyle added. 

"I think overall it's going to be a lot easier, user-friendly experience for people coming to the Capitol, using that south entrance," he said. 

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, the Senate's top budget writer, said the remodel project was initially intended to fix the west entry's aged, push-button doors, where lawmakers enter during session.

But the project was expanded as winter winds and extreme cold seep into the Capitol's ground floor, sucked through the south entrance tunnel, which Holmberg described as confusing and difficult for public access.

"It’s just a terrible entrance," Holmberg said. "The people who work there on security, they freeze. They wear jackets and gloves."

North Dakota Highway Patrol in late 2016 increased security measures at the state Capitol, installing metal detectors and locking some entrances to the public due to heightened security concerns related to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. The south entrance has been the only public access to the Capitol for more than two years.

It's not yet decided where visitors may be redirected during the south entrance construction. Boyle said the Capitol's Judicial Wing entry to the east would be likely, though Highway Patrol would help decide.

Construction would likely begin in the spring of 2020, Boyle said, after the Capitol Grounds Planning Commission selects an architect and design and awards bids for the project. 

The new entrance would ideally be completed before the next legislative session convenes in January 2021, he added. 

"I think it needs to be done because it is the public's building," Holmberg said. "They need to have as much and as easy access as we can give them."

A tentative study in the 2019-20 interim would look at handicapped accessibility at the Capitol, including parking spaces and entrances. Boyle said the south entrance project would work with whatever the study may recommend.

It's unclear when the south entrance tunnel was permanently closed to traffic.

Former Gov. Ed Schafer, who served from 1992 to 2000, said the tunnel's drive lanes closed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and probably ended up being permanent after he left office.

He also said he'd like to see more public entries to the Capitol building.

"It's hard to get into the Capitol today," Schafer said. 

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Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.