BISMARCK, ND (KXNET) — North Dakota State Senator Tracy Potter says he is “disappointed” North Dakota Attorney General Drew Wrigley won’t issue an opinion on who owns the railroad bridge crossing the Missouri River.

BNSF Railway, which claims it has long been the owner of the bridge, is planning to replace the aging structure with a new one.

A group of Bismarck-Mandan area residents called “Friends of the Rail Bridge” claims North Dakota is the rightful owner of the bridge. The group wants to preserve the span and see it turned into a walking bridge.

Tracy Potter

On April 18, Potter requested an attorney general’s opinion on ownership of the bridge. Specifically, Potter asked, “Do the citizens of the state of North Dakota own the riverbed and therefore the bridge?”

Potter argues the bridge might legally belong to the state under the Public Trust and Equal Footing doctrines which, in essence, imply when North Dakota joined the United States as a state on November 2, 1889, with that came ownership of the Missouri riverbed and the 1883 railroad bridge.

ND Attorney General Drew Wrigley

On April 27, Wrigley responded to Potter’s request, saying, “As you may be aware, my office previously advised the State Historical Society that the issue of the ownership of the rail bridge over the Missouri River is a matter to be resolved between the US Coast Guard, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the citizen group Friends of the Rail Bridge. While cognizant of your position, and understanding the impulse to request an Attorney General opinion, such an opinion would be improper in this situation. Accordingly, I decline to provide an opinion regarding the ownership of the historic 1883 railroad bridge.”

Potter suggests the attorney general is simply skirting the question.

“The attorney general avoids the issue by stating that this ‘matter is to be resolved between the U.S. Coast Guard, BNSF and the Friends of the Rail Bridge (FORB).’ That’s wrong. No agreement between those groups can void the state’s ownership of the bridge, if in fact, we do own it,” Potter says.

BNSF Railway has been blunt in its response to the question of bridge ownership: “First and foremost, BNSF has clear title to the bridge … and [it] has been continuously operated by Northern Pacific Railroad’s successors, including BNSF, since at least 1883,” it said earlier this year in documents submitted to North Dakota Attorney Drew Wrigley and to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Office Of Bridge Programs.

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