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SIMS — Infrastructure has been at the top of North Dakota lawmakers' agenda this legislative session, and an old bridge in rural Morton County is an example of what one ambitious bill seeks to address.

A Warren pony truss bridge built in 1916 on Sims Road over Sims Creek is up for adoption. Federal funding will build a concrete, double-barrel box culvert replacement in 2019 or 2020. The bridge's age and narrow width contributed to its planned replacement.

Morton County Engineer John Saiki said, as the bridge is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, any agency may apply by March 25 to relocate and preserve the structure. The county would likely transfer the bridge for $1, leaving relocation to the new owner.

"A lot of people who would love to save it can't afford it or don't have a good place to put it," Saiki said. A museum or historical society are likely contenders, he added.

Bridge adoption isn't unusual in Morton County, or even the Sims area. The Almont Heritage Park in Almont adopted a nearby truss bridge.

Almont Historical Society treasurer Dawn Olson, who teaches in Bismarck, said that bridge is popular for engagement and high school senior photos, as well as garden club functions. The bridge came to be at the park from the historical society's "renewed interest" and a "hope to hang on to the past," Olson said. 

House Bill 1066, or "Operation Prairie Dog," seeks infrastructure improvements throughout North Dakota, including non-oil-producing county and township roads and bridges, funded by oil tax revenue. Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said the Sims Road bridge is an example of the projects the bill's funding aims to accomplish.

"With that going to the counties, I hope it all gets spent on roads and bridges," Cook said.

Sponsors of the bill include Rep. Mike Nathe, R-Bismarck, Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, Cook and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. The bill would initiate new funds for city, county, township and airport infrastructure projects using oil tax revenue.

The bill unanimously passed the Senate Thursday after its 80-12 passage in the House. Now it goes to Gov. Doug Burgum.

Nathe has said "Operation Prairie Dog" could be the landmark bill of the 2019 session, if ultimately passed into law.

Morton County has about 260 bridges, which according to Saiki are rivaled only by North Dakota's Red River counties. 

More bridges -- mostly timber structures -- will begin to age out in coming years, he added.

An Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute report from 2016 identified 84 bridges in Morton County -- the most of any North Dakota county -- requiring preventive maintenance or rehabilitation and replacement by 2036, costing $46 million.

"We've got so much of it, we've got to get started and we've got to get them fixed on time," Cook said.

Saiki said Morton County would use "Operation Prairie Dog" funds for bridges if the bill goes through.

"That would be the goal," he said.

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Capitol Reporter