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Tribune editorial: Friends need to show it can pay for bridge
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Tribune editorial: Friends need to show it can pay for bridge

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The obstacles continue to mount for the Friends of the Rail Bridge in its efforts to save the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge. It’s time for the group to demonstrate it has the financial backing to preserve the bridge.

The Friends needed to establish a public-private partnership by March 15 that would take ownership of the bridge, under an agreement with the U.S. Coast Guard and BNSF Railway. The railroad owns the bridge and the Coast Guard is responsible for projects along that portion of the Missouri River.

BNSF wants to demolish the old bridge after a new one is constructed. Friends want to save the 138-old bridge and turn it into a pedestrian bridge. The ambitious preservation project has merit, but it may not be feasible.

Friends met with state officials and local commissions, but failed to find a partner. The Burleigh County Commission agreed to provide Friends with access to liability insurance through the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund. It withdrew the offer when it learned it couldn’t provide the group with that access.

Last week, BNSF asked the Coast Guard to drop preservation efforts and to begin planning for the removal of the bridge. BNSF has always maintained it wants to demolish the old bridge, but it agreed to work with Friends and the Coast Guard as it planned construction of the new bridge.

In a letter to the Coast Guard, BNSF explained its frustrations with Friends. It cited the group’s lack of a public partner, no proof it could reach fundraising goals and its unmet deadlines. BNSF argues it needs a permit for the new bridge by April 2022 or it will face “unreasonable additional cost.”

Unfortunately, for Friends of the Rail Bridge, BNSF’s arguments ring true. The railroad wants a new bridge that increases the load capacity of trains crossing the river. That’s a benefit state officials don’t want to lose. While supportive of the Friends’ vision, the state doesn’t want to hinder the new bridge plans.

The state Department of Transportation also declined to participate as a public partner, citing the timelines, limited project information available and the potential for the state to provide funding in a timely manner.

This lack of public financial support creates a big hurdle because BNSF estimates preserving the old bridge will cost between $50 million and $90 million. Even if that estimate is high, it’s apparent the project will be very expensive.

Friends have said they have supporters of the project waiting in the wings to provide financial support. Those supporters don’t want to be identified until the project gets the go-ahead.

If Friends of the Rail Bridge has any hope of acquiring the old bridge it needs to prove it has financial backing. Groups or organizations willing to support Friends need to come forward and explain their commitment.

It’s understandable why local commissions are unwilling to partner with Friends. They have other projects they want to fund. The Bismarck City Commission is trying to figure out how to fund a new police department and space for public health. The Bismarck Park Board wants to find a way to persuade the public to fund a recreation center.

The burden falls on the Friends of the Rail Bridge. It needs to step up and demonstrate it can financially handle the project or step aside and let BNSF move forward. It’s not fair to delay BNSF.

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