JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — ‘The Buck Stops Here’ (At The Governor’s Desk)

I’m pretty sure these phone calls have already happened.

Rrring! Rrring!

“Hello, Governor’s Office, this is Doug Burgum.”

“Hello, Governor, this is Bill Peterson over at the State Historical Society. They’re telling me I have to decide if I should sign off on letting the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tear down its historic bridge over the Missouri River so BSNF can build a new one. I thought maybe I should ask you how you feel about that.”

“Hi, Bill. Thanks for calling. I’ll get back to you.”

Rrring! Rrring!

“Hello, Governor’s Office, this is Doug Burgum.”

“Hello, Governor, this is Andrea Travnicek over at the Department of Water Resources. I’ve been talking with our state engineer, John Paczkowski, about whether we should approve the permit request to let the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tear down the railroad bridge over the Missouri River so it can build a new one. We thought maybe we should ask you how you feel about this.”

“Hi, Andrea, thanks for calling. I’ll get back to you.”

And that’s exactly where it’s at right now.

The original Northern Pacific bridge over the Missouri River, built about 1882. The superstructure has been replaced, but the original piers still hold it up.
The original Northern Pacific bridge over the Missouri River, built about 1882. The superstructure has been replaced, but the original piers still hold it up.

Newspaper stories have been saying that the State Historical Society gets some say in whether BNSF can tear down the bridge because of its historical value. It is, after all, 140 years old. That’s pretty historic, I’d say.

And the TV and radio stations have been saying that the Department of Water Resources has to issue a permit before the railroad can tear down the existing bridge. Something about the state owning the water.

A group called Friends of the Rail Bridge (FORB) is fighting hard to keep the bridge in place and send the railroad a few feet up river to build its bridge, leaving the old bridge in place as a recreation site and tourist attraction.

The reality is, neither Andrea Travnicek, the director of the Department of Water Resources, nor Bill Peterson, the director of the State Historical Society, is going to make those decisions.

Nope. This is one time when the buck stops at the governor’s desk. The only person who’s going to decide whether the bridge stays or goes is Doug Burgum. It’s his call. He gets to decide if he wants to cozy up to the giant railroad corporation, or say, “Sorry, boys, we like that bridge. Sue me.”

Well, BSNF will, of course. But that’s OK.

In fact, I told Attorney General Drew Wrigley in a hallway conversation the other day that I hope the governor says, “No!” so Drew can kick the railroad’s ass in court. Drew just smiled.

See, one way or the other, it’s going to be tied up in court for a long time. And it could be a landmark case. We know the state owns the river. But does it own something that somebody else plunked down in the middle of it?

Drew says no. Well, not really, one of his assistants signed the opinion that says BNSF owns the bridge and we can’t stop it from tearing it down. I think it was one of those opinions Drew just didn’t want to put his name at the bottom of.

Just in case.

Just in case Doug Burgum says “No,” to BNSF, and BNSF sues the state, and Drew has to defend us. That’s his job. If North Dakota gets sued, the attorney general has to defend the state. And frankly, I think it is a job he’d like. It’s a big-time case, with national implications. It’s the kind of case attorneys general drool over. It makes them famous, win or lose. Especially if they win.

So, here’s where we are now. The State Historical Board, a volunteer advisory board with no real authority (although its members are appointed by the governor), said a couple of weeks ago that it would prefer the bridge stay in place. But its director, Bill Peterson, who DOES have authority, can say, “No! It has historical value and you can’t tear it down.”

The people at the Water Department are tasked with issuing a permit to tear it down, if they want to. But Andrea Travnicek, the director, can say, “No, permit denied. Leave it alone.”

If either one, or both of them, say “No,” the court fight begins. BNSF sues the state, and Drew Wrigley puts his staff to work preparing the case.

But if they both say “Yes,” then it’s up to the Friends of the Rail Bridge to file suit to stop it. And they’ve indicated they’d do that.

Either way, it ends up in court. Some judge will decide, in a case with national implications, whether the bridge goes or stays.

But here’s the difference.

If Burgum tells Peterson and Travnicek to say “No,” the state of North Dakota and all of its resources gets to fight it out with the railroad in a federal court. The railroad’s rich, and has good attorneys, but North Dakota, I think, is richer, and we have Drew Wrigley and a great big legal staff. Let the battle begin!

But if the governor tells his directors to say “Yes,” then the volunteer group, with only good intentions, has to go find a couple of hundred thousand dollars somewhere to hire attorneys to take on one of the richest corporations in America in a federal court. I know most of those people in the FORB group. There aren’t many deep pockets there.

But there are really deep FEELINGS about this matter in that group, and they’ll go looking for help to finance the cost of a lawsuit. They might do it. Heck, I’ll throw in 50 bucks, and so will a lot of my friends. But it’s going to take a whole lot of $50 checks to finance that effort.

So here’s the phone calls that haven’t happened, but I’d like them to.

Rrrring! Rrrrring!

“Hello, State Historical Society. This is Director Bill Peterson.”

“Hello, Bill, this is Doug Burgum. Remember, I said I’d get back to you. I know you’ve said that you’d like to see the bridge preserved for its historical value. Well, I’m calling to tell you it is OK to just say “No!”

Rrrring! Rrrrring!

“Hello, this is the Department of Water Resources. Director Andrea Travnicek speaking.”

“Hello, Andrea, this is Doug Burgum calling. I told you I’d get back to you about this bridge business. I know the railroad is putting pressure on you to sign the permit to let them tear it down. I guess I think it would be OK for you to deny that permit.”

And, finally …

Rrrring! Rrrring!

“Attorney General’s office, Drew speaking.”

“Hi, Drew, it’s Doug from across the hall. I just thought I’d let you know that I’ve told Bill Peterson and Andrea Travnicek they can deny the BNSF request to tear down the railroad bridge. We’re probably going to get sued, and you’re our lawyer, so I thought you better know. I know one of your underlings over there said we don’t own the bridge, but I think maybe we should let a judge decide that. So get ready. You’re probably going to get served with papers pretty soon. You’ve got some pretty good lawyers over there. You might just win. Wouldn’t that be something!?!?!

Well, we can only hope.

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