We'd hate to see the old bridge taken down.
That was the sentiment expressed by one Bismarck-Mandan resident after another Thursday as BNSF weighs its options for a new railroad bridge over the Missouri River.
The structure has been a part of Bismarck-Mandan’s skyline for 134 years but it’s nearing the end of its useful lifespan the railway says. Despite its age, the bridge still allows 14 to 16 trains filled with oil, coal, crops and more to cross the Missouri River every day, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said earlier this year.
In laying out their options, the BNSF would prefer to demolish it in order to build a wider deck plate bridge 30 feet to the north - one that would have piers that go deeper into the river bottom to offer more stability.
But a number of the 75 to 100 people attending a public meeting as part of the U.S. Coast Guard-led National Environmental Policy Act process propose the company transfer ownership of the bridge to a local group in an effort to preserve it and use it for a walking and biking trail.
Many commenters spoke on the bridge’s history.
It was the last piece of the Second Transcontinental Railroad and its construction methods were among firsts for the nation.
To local resident Dakota Goodhouse the bridge stands as a reminder of where Gen. Henry Sibley pushed the Dakota and Lakota people across the river during battle in 1863.
“It’s historic because it’s become a part of my people’s narrative,” said Goodhouse, who is a Native American scholar and a Lakota descendant.
Images of the bridge appear on postcards and is the backdrop for many local family photos.
When deciding where she should move for a new job, David Witham’s wife came across an email offering a job that had an image of the bridge attached.
“Who’s to say she would have opened that email otherwise,” Witham said in touting the bridge as an iconic image for the community.
He said opening the bridge up as a public path would increase its attractiveness even further.
Jim Kambeitz said the current trails going past the bridge are some of his family’s favorites to bike on and having the bridge become a trail would help the two sister cities it serves become more connected to each other and to the Missouri River.
BNSF has examined an alternative to leave the current bridge in place and build the new bridge 80 feet up river but the proposal comes with its own set of problems the company says.
The upriver location would bring the construction zone out of the right of way, impacting adjacent properties. The downriver alternative would also include a bridge with wider piers that would eventually allow a second track - an option that the upriver location would not include.
Thursday’s meeting was one of the first public portions of the process, which will also include a 30-day public comment period on an environmental assessment. The company hopes to start construction next year. It is not yet making the expected construction cost public.
Other agency approvals needed by BNSF include U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency, North Dakota State Water Commission, North Dakota Department of Health, the cities of Bismarck and Mandan, as well as traffic related permits for construction from the North Dakota Department of Transportation, counties and townships.
Most of the applications are under review. Corps and Health Department approvals related to the Clean Water Act and stormwater pollution prevention have yet to be submitted.