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BNSF Railway asks Coast Guard to start process to remove historic rail bridge
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BNSF Railway asks Coast Guard to start process to remove historic rail bridge

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Members of the Friends of the Rail Bridge are trying to save and preserve from demolition the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge over the Missouri River between Bismarck and Mandan. The 1880s-era bridge was on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2019.

After years of a local nonprofit trying to save the historic Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, the owner of the structure has asked the federal agency overseeing the process to move on from preservation and begin planning for removal.

Friends of the Rail Bridge wants to stop BNSF Railway from demolishing the 138-year-old bridge spanning the Missouri River to make way for a new structure. The preservation group and railroad signed an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard in January outlining paths to either keeping or removing the bridge. The Coast Guard decides on projects proposed along that part of the Missouri River.

The railroad in a letter dated Thursday asked the Coast Guard to shift its efforts from preserving the bridge to removing it.

The eight-page letter written by Director of Bridge Maintenance Mike Herzog listed multiple concerns with the preservation group's progress, including a lack of a public partner, no demonstrated ability to meet fundraising goals and unmet deadlines. The railroad also was not given the chance to consult about extending a key deadline for the nonprofit to create a public-private partnership and eventually allowing the group to move forward without a public partner, according to Herzog's letter.

The Coast Guard did not respond to a Tribune request for comment.

Friends of the Rail Bridge Board President Mark Zimmerman told the Tribune, "BNSF has every right to express concerns about our capability. We all have the opportunity under the programmatic agreement to voice our concerns."

Friends of the Rail Bridge had until March 15 to establish a public-private partnership that would eventually take ownership of the historic bridge to prevent its demolition and convert it to a pedestrian bridge. The Burleigh County Commission voted on the last day to allow the group access to additional liability insurance through the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund, something it cannot do. The commission later withdrew from the partnership after learning it can't provide the nonprofit that access.

Herzog said that without a partner, the group is out of compliance with the January agreement.

The Friends group also asked the Bismarck Park Board to join the partnership on April 15 and said it had been given permission to move forward with its plans to preserve the bridge alone, though it continues to search for a partner for its preservation efforts. The park board tabled discussion on the matter for up to six months because of unknown financial responsibility. Zimmerman is a member of the board.

Herzog said that the nonprofit is unable to take on the responsibilities of the public-private partnership alone.

"FORB is a new organization with limited financial resources, no established membership, no track record of managing complex projects, and a pattern of being unable to meet its commitments," the letter states.

Zimmerman said it would be difficult for the nonprofit to handle the partnership's responsibilities, and that the board will be considering more options for who the public partner could be.

"It's a difficult task for a group of volunteers to do this," he said. 'We've been hoping that the community would show some support."

The Friends group told the Burleigh County Commission that it has $17,000 in the bank and will look for grants and donations to help fund its efforts. The railway has estimated the cost of preserving the historic bridge to be between $50 million and $90 million.

Zimmerman said it's been tough to approach any governments about partnering when the potential price tag is that high. The group submitted amendments to the agreement that could clarify who is responsible for funding any preservation and allow the nonprofit more time to fulfill its requirements.

A draft environmental impact statement that includes both possible bridge outcomes is due to be released in June. Herzog writes in the letter that the nonprofit did not submit some required documentation for the draft by the April 14 deadline, "again demonstrating FORB's inability to provide required information and commitments in a timely manner."

Zimmerman said that Friends of the Rail Bridge submitted its documents on time but was informed that more information was needed, which the group is working to provide.

Continued extensions will delay the decision on a permit for a new bridge, according to Herzog. Without a permit by April 2022, the railway said, it will incur "unreasonable additional cost."

"BNSF needs to build a new bridge so we can continue serving our customers in North Dakota safely and without interruption," spokeswoman Amy McBeth wrote in an email to the Tribune.

The parties likely will meet in early May to discuss next steps, Zimmerman said.

Reach Sam Nelson at 701-250-8264 or sam.nelson@bismarcktribune.com.

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