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Friends of the Rail Bridge to go forward with preservation efforts after meeting deadline

Friends of the Rail Bridge to go forward with preservation efforts after meeting deadline

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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.

A group hoping to save the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge can continue to search for public partners after meeting a key federally set deadline last week.

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 organizations signed an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard in January outlining paths to either keeping or removing the bridge.

The railway has been going through the permitting process with the Coast Guard for a new bridge for more than three years. The Coast Guard decides on projects proposed along that part of the Missouri River to “ensure the structure does not unreasonably affect navigation,” according to a Federal Register notice.

A decision on the permit is scheduled for Jan. 22, 2022.

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 covert 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, which meets the partnership requirements outlined in the agreement, according to Brian Dunn, chief of the Coast Guard Office of Bridge Programs.

The partnership is structured in such a way that a public organization can assist with one aspect of preservation, such as nominating the rail bridge for the National Register of Historic Places, instead of taking on the entire project. 

Friends of the Rail Bridge initially had until March 1 to find partners but requested an extension until March 15. The organization has declined to name other public agencies it has contacted to form a partnership, but at least three government boards or agencies that were asked have decided not to join or to wait before making a decision.

The Bismarck City Commission denied a request from the city's Historic Preservation Commission to join the partnership Feb. 23, citing concerns about becoming financially responsible for the bridge. The state Department of Transportation declined in part because of funding concerns and a lack of information about the project.

The Bismarck Park Board did not immediately take action on a request to join the partnership because two board members were absent.

The preservation group will continue to look for partners to join its cause, Friends of the Rail Bridge member Margie Zalk Enerson said.

"I think it will allow other public entities to review their potential role without an unrealistic rush of a 45-day commitment from when the (January) agreement was signed," she said in an email.

A 2019 feasibility study conducted by North Dakota State University estimated the cost to turn the rail bridge into a foot bridge at just under $7 million. Enerson said funding opportunities are available through organizations such as the Rails to Trails Conservancy, which works to convert railroads to trails, and the state Outdoor Heritage Fund, which provides grants for conservation projects.

"Our potential sources need to know preservation and repurposing the bridge is a viable option," she said.

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

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