Riverside Bridge Update: The Battle over the Ownership

Riverside Bridge. Photo taken in August 2011

There is usually a problem when it comes to preserving historic bridges and that is the question of ownership and liability. Most of the time agencies and parties involved in a historic bridge in question usually pass the buck (or deferring the responsibility) around until no one wants to take responsibility for the historic bridge because of the fear of being liable for anything that happened on/to the bridge and the potential for lawsuits that would follow.  In many cases, bridges that have been left abandoned for many years are subsequentially removed because no one was either able or willing to take on the burden of ownership for the bridge. Many examples, big and small, come to light, whether it is the Lane Bridge over the Upper Iowa River in Allamakee County, Iowa, which was removed in 2007 for safety concerns, or the Cedar Grove Bridge in Indiana, which the Indiana DOT is pursuing demolition options despite restrictions with regards to preservation laws by the state and opposition by locals wanting the structure saved. Then there is the Bellaire Toll Bridge over the Ohio River in Bellaire and Benwood (in Ohio and West Virginia) which no one wants to take claim for the cantilever truss bridge that has been abandoned for over 20 years and all are collaborating to have this structure removed, if nothing has happened to it already.

Oblique view of the Cedar Grove Bridge in Indiana. Photo courtesy of Tony Dillon

But back in Ozark, Missouri, the situation is much different with the Riverside Bridge. The 1909 structure has been closed since September 2010 and tempers have been flaring up with regards to the future of the bridge, but in a rather different way. Support for saving the bridge has been increasing exponentially since Kris Dyer established the Save the Riverside Bridge Initiative in January 2010. The bridge has received the support from the community and the county. Additional support has come from the outside from the preservationists both within and outside Missouri and many interested people. The county claims ownership of the bridge and has withheld any taxpayer money on the bridge until a solution is found for the bridge.  Yet opposition has come from the Christian County Special Road Commission and its two members, Scott Bilyeu and Keith Robinette. They claim that the bridge falls in its jurisdiction and would like to see it torn down at the earliest possible convenience and replaced with a low-lying crossing, as a cost-effective measure, even using its own funding to carry out the task. This was based on a pair of recent meetings in July, the most pivotal was the one on July 25.
The low-lying crossing is designed to allow water to flow under and over the slab structure supported by piers and constructed just above the river. Two examples of such a low-water crossing can be found at Island Park in Rock Rapids, Iowa. They cross the Rock River with one located at the park’s northeast entrance and the other carries a road from the main park to a nearby dam north of there. The reason why these structures are not used often on roadways are three-fold. First of all, such crossings serve as a dam, hindering the river’s flow and causing flooding and potential erosion upstream. Secondly, if the river level increases, it makes the crossing impossible and even dangerous for those chancing the crossing. And finally, in the case of flooding, such low-water crossings can also be ripped out without noticing. For the low river crossing near the dam at Rock Rapids, the current structure is the second one after the first one was destroyed in a flood, either in 1993 or 2008. These crossings are used for roads that are the least traveled.

Sideview of the low-lying crossing at Island Park in Rock Rapids. Photo taken in August 2009
Remains of a previous low-lying crossing that was destroyed in a flood. This is the one north of Island Park in Rock Rapids. Photo taken in August 2009 This is located right next to the new crossing (as seen in the picture above)

As for the Riverside Bridge, the traffic flow was fairly high at the time of its closing, as the bridge connects Ozark and Fremont Mills to the north. The demand for the bridge to be reopened, or rather have a new bridge built next to the old one with the old one being converted to a pedestrian bridge is high. The problem at the moment is the funding and the location of the new structure. To the west of the bridge is a former restaurant site which is owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to the east  there is private property. While FEMA is against the construction of any bridge at the restaurant site, there is opposition from land owners to building the bridge on their site. And according to Missouri DOT, restoring the bridge to serve vehicular traffic is not an option. The option of relocating the two-span truss bridge is not a favorable one but it is open and being considered a last-resort option for the support for keeping the bridge in its place is high.  Then there is the funding issue for no matter what action is taken, the consequence on the funding aspect will be great. The county is dependent on Bridge Replacement Off-system (BRO) funds, which is used for roads and bridges built more than 10 years ago. The Special Roads District’s main motive is to complete the construction of the bridge before the funding is lost and given to other areas in need. It would cost between $150,000 and $300,000 to build a low-lying bridge instead of the $1.7 million bridge, which would be higher and safer, but as Bilyeu claims, the county has no money for.

The main key however is not the funding aspect or where to relocate the bridge, but more of the ownership aspect, as stated in a recent newspaper article from neighboring Springfield. Both the county and the special roads district have separate statutes as to how much funding is allocated and who has the say over the bridges. Yet, according to all sources involved, they contradict each other. The county special roads commission claims the Riverside Bridge is theirs because they are responsible for the structure’s upkeep, yet the county claims ownership over that bridge as well as all of the bridges in Christian County and has the last say over how money can be spent for the bridge. The end result is a potential court battle with all parties sitting on the sidelines while the attorneys battle it out to see who is right.

While each agency, whether it is the state, federal government or local authorities has a statute stating the responsibilities for the infrastructure and how it should be built, kept up and funded, the problem has become a double-edged sword with the Riverside Bridge entering the stage. While many have passed the responsibilities and liabilities onto others to keep themselves from being responsible and taking on the liability issues, this debate is more of agencies fighting to take responsibility over a bridge, an exact opposite of what we had been seeing until most recently. It is unknown how far the debate will go, but it may go pretty far, involving state authorities and even the federal government, but no matter how the county and the courts decide, it may have implications in other counties in Missouri and beyond as to who has the final word over the ownership of the bridges and how they are maintained and/or preserved. For some preservation groups, it may be a blessing if a historic bridge is in a county and the commissioner is keen on preserving historic bridges. However, if a historic bridge is in a county, like Franklin County, where the county officials disregard the historic integrity of the structure and the preservation laws that exist to protect it, it could be fatal. And if the logic of having a cheap bridge, like a low-lying crossing to cross a river exists, the county could be paying more of a price if flooding takes it out- and at the expense of life.

Note: Franklin County is where the Enoch’s Knob Bridge is located. Officials have signed-off on the bridge and is now the responsibility of a demolition contractor, who will tear it down and replace it with a concrete bridge. The project is expected to begin as soon as possible. An article on the bridge can be found here.