I went to the North Dakota Department of Water Resources public hearing Friday on whether they should grant the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad permission to build a new bridge over the Missouri River between Bismarck and Mandan.
To quote from the Department’s meeting notice, “The new bridge is intended to replace an existing bridge, the proposed removal of which will be considered under a separate Department of Water Resources’ application review.”
Except that if the department grants this permit, the second application and review will be academic, since BNSF can’t build the new bridge without tearing down the old one because in the permit application to build the bridge it says the new bridge is going to be only 20 feet from the old one, so that would not be possible without tearing down the old one.
I don’t use the word “old” lightly. It was built in 1883, 140 years ago, and remains an engineering marvel all these years later. As someone pointed out at the hearing, which attracted lots of historians, it is “the most important historic landmark located on state land in North Dakota.”
So pretty much the entire two-hour hearing was devoted to opponents of tearing down the old bridge, who asked the hearing board not to grant the application to build the new one right now because it would mean tearing down the old one. Those folks are proposing that the existing bridge be repurposed into a walking bridge, connecting the numerous walking trails in Bismarck and Mandan. They have a pretty good idea.
A few BNSF flacks got up and explained to the Water Resources staffers conducting the hearing why they wanted to build a new bridge and responding to the detractors, said it could not be done, under current plans in the application, which they have been working on for the better part of a decade, without removing the old one.
Let me digress for a minute. When the guy from BNSF got up to talk, I flashed back on a moment more than 30 years ago. I was a member of the North Dakota Centennial Commission back in the 1980s, and we held regular meetings at which people and businesses and organizations would come in and talk with us about being a part of the celebration.
At one meeting, a big shot from BNSF came to us and got up and made a little speech about helping us celebrate because the railroad goes back even before North Dakota statehood. He asked if we had any ideas on how BNSF could help.
The vice chairman of our commission (former Gov. Art Link was the chairman) was a crusty old farmer from Minot named Larry Erickson, who had a droll sense of humor and an even better sense of timing.
When the BNSF guy asked how they could help us, Larry said, “Well, you could start by giving us back the land.” Brought down the house, although we tried to be polite about our laughter. We didn’t get any land back.
At Friday’s hearing, there was lots of good testimony from those who want to save the bridge. I won’t go into it here. The secular media is doing a good job of that. But one of the best pieces of testimony came from historian Tracy Potter, who suggested the tracks be rerouted from the city’s center around the north or south side of town.
His concern is that BNSF has mentioned the possibility of two tracks over the river and through the towns, instead of the current single track, which could cause some mighty big problems in downtown Bismarck — specifically the need for some more costly overpasses. (And the paper this morning quotes a lady representing downtown Bismarck businesses, saying running two tracks through town would result in “the decimation of downtown Bismarck.”)
Potter pointed out the reason for the trains running through the downtowns is because when they were built, their job was to bring people here. They don’t do that anymore. There are no passenger trains here and no train depots downtown. So move it out, Potter said
On my way home from the hearing, I got to thinking.
About 20 years ago, when I was living up north of Bismarck, on a place called Horseshoe Bend, not far from the river, by the boat ramp up there, there was a proposal to build a new highway bridge over the river, connecting North Mandan and North Bismarck. I was pretty concerned because a four-lane road would have run through my back yard, between my neighbor’s house and mine. When I eventually sold that house, I had to disclose the proposal to the buyer.
But the idea didn’t go anywhere, and I don’t know why because with the explosion in growth in both North Mandan and especially North Bismarck, it surely would be well-used. If it were built today, for example, it would give Mandan residents a straight shot to Costco, instead of driving all the way through Bismarck. (Some downtown Mandan merchants might see it as a rerun of the projects to build a four-lane road on the Strip and build the Expressway Bridge 50 years ago, which gave Mandan residents a fast track to Kirkwood Mall, to the detriment of Mandan’s Main Street.)
Today, I live in the Highland Acres neighborhood of west Bismarck, less than half a mile as the crow flies from the railroad tracks. I’m a beneficiary of the quiet rail zone enacted a few years ago by our City Commission, mostly for the benefit of Commissioner Connie Sprynczynatyk, who lived next to the tracks at Fraine Barracks, where her husband, Dave, was Adjutant General of the North Dakota National Guard. Potter’s idea of rerouting the trains around town would make me even more of a beneficiary. I can still hear the trains rumble across the railroad bridge, just over the hill, even though they don’t blow their whistles anymore.
So here’s an idea. What if the cities of Bismarck and Mandan, along with Burleigh and Morton counties, the state of North Dakota, with its federal and state gas tax money, and the BNSF Railroad, all got together and built a big six-lane “Super Bridge” somewhere up north? A bridge with four lanes of car traffic and two railroad tracks. I’d think there’d be some efficiencies there, and we could “kill two birds with one stone.”
They’d have to figure out a way to get the tracks from their current location in Mandan up north somehow (and try to avoid my former neighbor’s back yard — he’s probably not going to like this idea), but I bet it could be done. Heck, maybe the new road and tracks could run all the way from the west end of Mandan, across the north side of town, past the Seven Seas and the refinery and Heskett plant, across the river, and through the north edge of Bismarck, crossing over U.S. Highway 83 and right on to points east. They could put a rail siding beside Costco, and the company could be resupplied by train and get a whole bunch of those big trucks off the road. The “Crown Butte to Costco Line.” Maybe Costco would even chip in because of the burst of new customers from the new road and bridge and the transportation savings.
Potter mentioned the possibility of going around the towns to the south, too, and I suppose they could figure that out, connecting south Mandan, which back in my early days here was called “Dogtown,” with Sam’s Club. The “Ol’ Roy” Line.
I know there’s a big train yard over in Mandan, where the trains get maintained and refueled, so this idea would create a problem for the railroad if it moved the tracks out of downtown Mandan, but BNSF could figure out how to deal with that as well. I bet my friend, John Risch, a former BNSF engineer, who used to work out of that train yard and who testified with some pretty deep knowledge about trains Friday, could help figure that out. Do they still build roundhouses?
And the other benefit of this idea could be that BNSF could give, or sell, the existing right of way through the towns to the Bismarck and Mandan Park Boards, who could use it for a 10-mile or so trail through the hearts of our towns for hikers and bikers, connected by the bridge. Wouldn’t that be cool? “Rails to Trails.”
A “Super Bridge.” Close your eyes and picture that. One really big bridge. Somebody at the hearing brought up the fact that Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first people to cross the bridge on a train when he came out west hunting before settling on a ranch in the Bad Lands. That reminded me of something TR once said:
“Like all Americans, I like big things; big parades, big forests and mountains, big wheat fields, ‘railroads’ — and herds of cattle, too; big factories, steamboats and everything else. But we must keep steadily in mind that no people were ever yet benefited by riches if their property corrupted their virtue. It is more important that we should show ourselves honest, brave, truthful and intelligent than that we should own all the ‘railways’ and grain elevators in the world.” (emphasis added)
Some pretty good words to live by, BNSF.
A big, big bridge. I bet old TR would like that.