Letter from Langdon: Bridge-Fix, at Last

Missouri's overdue for infrastructure repairs. With stimulus funding, there will be major work on the big bridge into (and out of) Atchison County.

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Even though our small schools and local businesses still don’t gain much national support, the highways and bridges that let people pass through our communities have gotten some attention from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

At last count Missouri was set to receive $637 million for improvements to roads and infrastructure. It is guesstimated that the multiplier effect from that Federal aid would create 14,000 jobs and have a $2.4 billion impact on the state’s economy.

Believe me, we deserve it. Our state bridges, among other things, are in bad shape. The original Missouri repair dilemma identified about 500 bridges, but the longer state government dithered about how to pay for the work, the faster the number needing repair grew. We now have 802 state-maintained bridges slated for repair.

Bridges designated as fixer-uppers are marked with small blue signs that read “Safe & Sound.” (the name for Missouri Department of Transportation’s five-year plan). All it takes is driving the highways here to know that the number of designated bridges will increase, because so many with obvious decay of steel and concrete still don’t have “Safe & Sound” posted at their approaches.

Richard Oswald
Road and bridge repairs have long been on Missouri’s to-do list. With the federal stimulus funding, work will move forward at last.

The state has been wrestling with the problem of aging infrastructure for years. It got so bad a couple of years ago that former Governor Matt Blunt proposed handing the job over to one or two private contractors, with not a single state payment due until every bridge was fixed. How he planned to finance the whole thing was never decided; privatization of some public thoroughfares may have been in the idea, or maybe he was hoping the contractors would go broke before the job was finished so we’d never have to pay at all.

Richard Oswald
The Brownville Bridge was built in 1939 with federal and state money, plus local toll fees.

Here in northwestern Missouri, we have at least 155 state-maintained bridges in need of repair, and the asphalt roads they serve have also begun to decay. At 1904 feet long, the largest and most important bridge in these parts is without a doubt the Missouri River crossing known as the Brownville Bridge, on US 136 at Brownville, Nebraska. It was erected in 1939 at a cost of $708,878.54. The Missouri Highway Commission furnished $50,000, and the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works provided a grant of $311,580. To pay the rest of the cost, Atchison County, Missouri, issued bonds and operated the bridge as a toll crossing to pay expenses. When the bonds were paid off, the state of Missouri assumed responsibility and the Brownville Bridge became a free crossing.

The cost of year-long repairs – to include paint, a new deck, and replacement of one pier — is estimated at $9 million, or nearly 12 times the original construction cost. The 2009 repair work will likely take just about as long as the entire original creation did.

Having a toll bridge wasn’t popular with everyone way back when, because the dollar it cost to cross the river seemed expensive by 1940 standards (about $15 in today’s dollars). One story that’s been told time and again around Langdon is of the three good ole boys who decided to drive over the new bridge just to check it out. When the toll master told them what the cost would be, one Langdon local remarked “I don’t want to buy the damned thing. I just want to cross it!”

The Brownville Bridge has made it easier for people from Atchison County to hold Nebraska jobs, at places like the Cooper Nuclear Power Station near Brownville or the manufacturing plants about 12 miles away in Auburn, Nebraska.  Other  bridges in the area that allow Missourians a river crossing are located 20 miles to the south at Rulo, Nebraska (that bridge slated for complete replacement in 10 years if they have the money) or a relatively new bridge 30 miles north on Highway 2 at Nebraska City.

Richard Oswald
The Brownville Bridge, spanning the Missouri River, is part of a major midwest truck route and conduit for northwest Missourians who commute to Nebraska for jobs.

US 136 is a major truck route. Truck stops and restaurants at the junction of I-29 provide important sales tax revenue to Atchison County and the city of Rock Port. That sales tax helps pay the cost of upkeep for our community, lightening the burden on local property owners. With the highway scheduled to be closed to truck traffic at Brownville for nearly one year, local tax coffers may need stimulus of their own by the time the bridge is reopened.

It is nice to see some things being taken care of. Goodness knows that as far from the state capitol of Jefferson City as we are, we sometimes feel a little neglected. But it seems odd for the state to hesitate at least four years in financing needed repairs, only to have extreme financial hardship get the credit for a solution.

Even so, it doesn’t look like we’ll get the things we need most here in rural Missouri. Most of the jobs associated with rebuilding our bridges will go to people who live somewhere else. By and large, even with the stimulus spending, the same highways that carry people into our towns will still carry them away just as fast.

What we really need here around Langdon is a better reason for people to stay.

 

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