BNSF asks Coast Guard to move forward with rail bridge removal

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Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway wants to remove and replace the Bismarck-Mandan bridge, saying it’s near the end of its useful life.

“Agricultural commodities, coal, it’s lumber, energy products — basically, all of North Dakota’s economy moves across that bridge and we need to be able to secure the permit to construct a new one to serve North Dakota for another 130 years,” BNSF Regional Public Affairs Director Amy McBeth said.

But nonprofit Friends of the Rail Bridge wants to preserve the 138-year-old structure, and make it a pedestrian walkway.

“The bridge being a walkway, a bikeway, there are examples across the country where there’s like an ice cream shop set up on the bridge. Maybe a bike rental place along the bridge, but a way that people could move across the bridge,” Friends of the Rail Bridge President Mark Zimmerman said.

That vision may not become reality.

In a recent letter, the railway asked the Coast Guard to move forward with removal. BNSF says FORB lacks the funding and the public partnership needed and has missed deadlines on those fronts.

“After years in the consulting process, we told the Coast Guard and FORB we came to an agreement on certain actions and deadlines…some of those key points have either not happened or there hasn’t been adequate information provided,” McBeth said.

But FORB says that agreement is malleable, and the cost doesn’t come close to what BNSF has estimated.

“We signed a programmatic agreement with BNSF that can be amended. We sent a letter to the signatories asking for a change in that agreement that would take that burden off of FORB and local entities and put it on BNSF. The cost to repurpose this bridge is 6.9 million, not 60 to 90 million,” FORB Board Member Signe Snortland said.

FORB members also say the National Historic Preservation Act makes the bridge a historic property, and that should be heavily considered by the Coast Guard.

“Theodore Rosevelt came to North Dakota because that bridge took him to Medora. If that bridge wouldn’t have been here, perhaps Theodore Roosevelt never would have been here to hunt,” Zimmerman said.

Snortland says they’ll be meeting with the Coast Guard and BNSF next Friday.

“We’re hoping that we can work out an agreement so we can move forward and have the best of both worlds — a brand new bridge, and save the old one,” Snortland said.

The bridge has been here since 1883, and FORB says it’s hosting an event by the bridge Sunday, May 16 to let people learn more about their efforts.

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