Structurally deficient bridge becomes political hot potato in Bergen Twp.

January 14, 2008

By Ivan Raconteur
Staff Writer

Bridge 5881, which crosses the Crow River just south of Lester Prairie in Bergen Township, has been closed since Dec. 7.

The county owns it, but says it doesn’t have the money to replace it, and wants to turn the bridge over to the township.

The township needs the bridge, but doesn’t want to take ownership because it can’t afford to maintain it.

Township and county officials and township residents discussed the bridge situation during Thursday’s Bergen Township meeting.

More than 20 residents were present at the meeting and some expressed frustration at the bridge closing and said replacement of the bridge is an urgent matter.

The residents provided a copy of a petition signed by nearly 70 local residents asking the county to replace the bridge as soon as possible.

The petition further asked that County Road 84 remain a county road, and that during the time the bridge is closed, the county assume responsibility for maintenance of 175th Street (the township road that is the primary, though unofficial, detour).

The residents also provided a copy of a letter from Lester Prairie Fire Chief Jim Hoof, expressing concerns about public safety.

In the letter, Hoof wrote that Babcock Avenue is the shortest and quickest route for the department to use when responding to calls south of 180th Street.

Hoof stated that 175th Street and 165th Street are not good alternatives, because they are gravel roads, which are often slippery and snow- packed in winter, and soft in the spring. They are also narrower than Babcock Avenue, and can be treacherous for emergency personnel, according to Hoof.

“We urge you to rebuild the bridge as it can save us many minutes when traveling to an emergency where every minute counts in saving a life or someone’s property,” Hoof wrote in closing.

Both the letter and the petition were forwarded to the county board.

Other residents expressed concerns about traveling on township roads while the bridge is closed.

Pat Thiede said she works in the metro area, and is concerned about the extra time the detour adds to her commute, and the conditions of the township roads.

In a letter to the county board, Thiede and her husband, David, wrote that they would not have purchased their home if they knew they would have to travel on gravel roads.

They also expressed concern about the public safety issues caused by the bridge closing, in terms of emergency response time.

The bridge closing also has an economic impact.

Mark Anderson, who owns Andy’s Body Shop, located on the paved portion of Babcock Avenue just south of the bridge, is concerned about losing his business.

“I have been here for 30 years, but people are not going to come to my business if they have to drive down a gravel road to get here,” Anderson said, noting that many of his customers own show cars.

“How am I going to promote my business? Anderson asked.

“I feel that the county neglected that bridge,” he said.

In earlier discussions, there had been some talk of permanently closing the bridge, but Commissioner Ray Bayerl made it clear Thursday that this is not going to happen.

“Permanently closing the bridge is not an issue anymore. That is off the table,” Bayerl said.

No decisions were made during the meeting, but some of the options for replacing the bridge were clarified.

McLeod County Engineer John Brunkhorst said it will cost $480,000 to replace the bridge.

This includes $20,000 for removal of the existing bridge, $380,000 for construction of the new bridge, $40,000 for approach grading, and $40,000 for engineering.

Brunkhorst said potential funding sources include:

• county funds (this project is not in the county’s plan until 2009);

• state bridge bonding funds (would only cover the $380,000 bridge construction portion, and no funds are currently available. This would have to be approved during the 2008 session, which begins Feb. 12, and is not guaranteed);

• township bridge funds (would cover all but $20,000, and funds are currently available, but only if the bridge is turned over to the township.

Brunkhorst said federal funds are not an option because of the time element.

Some residents asked if the county could re-allocate funds from other areas to pay for the bridge replacement.

Bayerl said even if the county could come up with the money to fund the bridge, he would not be able to get support to move forward, because the county would not be reimbursed by the state.

Brunkhorst indicated that the only sure way to get the bridge replaced this year is if the township takes it over.

“I am 99 percent certain it can be replaced in 2008 if the township takes it over. Completion in 2009 is not guaranteed if it stays a county bridge,” Brunkhorst said.

“There is a slim possibility that it could be done in 2008 if state bridge bonding funds become available, but there is no guarantee,” Bayerl said.

Residents asked about the possibility of reopening the bridge to light traffic until funds become available.

Brunkhorst initially said reopening the bridge would require an inspection by a structural engineer, which would cost $5,000 to $10,000.

“I don’t think that’s feasible. Some residents still wouldn’t use it. I don’t see us opening it back up,” Brunkhorst said.

It was noted that reopening the bridge with a lower weight rating still would not resolve the public safety concerns, because fire equipment would not be able to use the bridge.

It was also noted that county plow trucks would not be able to maintain the bridge.

Residents continued to express interest in getting the bridge reopened, even if this requires repairs, and Brunkhorst agreed to find out what an inspection would cost, and what it would take for the county to reopen the bridge.

Township Clerk Anita Bahr asked what was different about this inspection than the inspection that resulted in the bridge being closed.

Brunkhorst explained that the inspection mandated by the state after the I-35W collapse was more of a safety inspection, while reopening the bridge would require an evaluation to determine the weight limit that the bridge could safely support.

Bayerl said the county is not trying to pressure the township to take over the bridge.

“You guys have to want to accept this. We, as a county, are not going to push this on you,” Bayerl said.

“The main reason for the turn-back is to get the bridge done as soon as possible,” Brunkhorst commented.

He suggested that the township could take back County Road 84 and County Road 74, and presented a list of options that the county might consider offering to compensate the township for taking over the roads.

These include a cash settlement, maintenance work, the Lester Prairie maintenance shop, and county highway equipment.

The primary objection voiced by township residents during the meeting was a concern that the township could not afford to maintain the road, and does not have the staff or equipment to do so.

“The soonest we could act on this is at our annual meeting in March,” Township Supervisor Francis Burch said.

Brunkhorst said he would look into the cost of a structural analysis, as well as the possibility of temporary repairs.

He also agreed to look at the possibility of reopening the bridge to pedestrian traffic at the request of residents.