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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

Commission applies brakes to Hell's Bend bridge project

Updated: Jan 6

This bridge over the railroad tracks at Hell's Bend is consructed in a manner that if one element fails, the bridge will fall down. The Linn County Commission is asking the state to get another bid on the project. (Journal file photo)

By Charlene Sims,

MOUND CITY – As the Jan. 5 deadline for commitment to the state 80/20 grant to replace the Hell’s Bend Bridge on 2300 Lane approached, the Linn County Commission decided to refuse the one bid that was received for the project.

In a split 2-1 vote on Tuesday, Jan. 2, the commissioners decided to approach the Kansas Department of Transportation about seeking new bids for the project. Commissioner Jason Hightower voted no.

Hightower explained that his argument was not that there were not going to be other grants available but that Linn County had already been working on this since 2020 trying to get through this process. It’s going to be another four or five year project for the next group if they are going the same route.

“They can thank us for their plan,” said Commission Chair Danny McCullough.

The bid for $2.3 million would increase the county’s share of the grant by about $139,000, from $306,000 to $505,000. 

Public Works Director Shaun West checked with the state the past week and they said that they had put out the bid publicly as well as notices sent to pre-qualified contractors. 

The representative from the state told West that he suspected that what led to only one bidder was the workload in the construction industry right now and for the foreseeable future, dealing with the railroad, contracting, permitting and insurance, flagging requirements, and the location.

Commissioners and Linn County staff have worked on developing this project since before the grant was received in October 2020. West told the commissioners on Tuesday, that not only had the county spent nearly $72,000 on engineering fees and easement costs but that the staff had devoted many hours to the project.

The commissioners want to see if a reletting of bids is possible and if not, they want to look at other options. One of the options talked about was an at-grade crossing. This would include building a road down the hillside to the railroad tracks, then a crossing and a road up the other side of the incline.

The current bridge would remain in place until either a new bridge is built or a road around the cut through the hill is built.

County Counselor Gary Thompson said that he thought the railroad would oppose that idea.

West pointed out there might be a concern about disturbing the land on one side of the crossing because it is habitat for the broadhead skink which is an endangered species.

Commissioners are hoping that seeking new bids on the project will lower the cost.

Commission Chair Danny McCullough commented that restoration projects always end up with additional costs.

McCullough said that the bridge was built in 1957 and it hasn’t failed any of its inspections.

 “The condition of it shows some minor or fair rusting, things that you would expect,” West said. “The condition of the bridge, through reports that I have looked at, would show some minor rust and some decking issues needing some repair or covering. And when I say decking, I mean gravel dirt material to cover the roadway surface of the bridge.

West said that the reason for replacing the bridge was not that it was in poor condition (see photo above) but that it was a fracture critical bridge that could collapse if only one section failed. The other concern was that this bridge spanned the railroad tracks. 

“I’m scared that once we get into the project what it’s going to cost us and with restoration, there are a lot of unforeseens and with one company bidding it,” said McCullough.

“How are we going to fund it going forward?” asked Hightower. “That’s what I am looking at, I guess, is the long term. We have the grant lined up now to take care of this issue, I know it’s a large cost.”

“Is it logical to think that a bridge of this age would have to be replaced some time in the next few years?” asked County Clerk David Lamb.

West said that if the county decides not to fund it today, the county needs to find a time line for funding the project.

Commissioner Jim Johnson asked, “Can the railroad rule what we do there, can the railroad landlock us?” 

Thompson said the railroad was not telling the county they had to take the bridge out.

West said that the only thing that the railroad stipulated was a lot of flagging and wanted the old abutments pulled out after the new bridge is in place.

After several fracture critical bridge collapses in the United States, notably the 1967 collapse of the Point Pleasant Bridge over the Ohio River (also known as the Silver Bridge) that resulted in 46 deaths, the government was trying to get ahead of any concerns by replacing this type of bridge. 

The failure investigation in that bridge showed that the fracture was due to brittle propagation of a tiny crack in the eyebar. So a small crack in the eyebar led to to the collapse of the bridge. If one of the parts of a fracture critical bridge fails, there is no redundancy to its load bearing, and the bridge will fall. 

Kansas is working on replacing those types of bridges across the state by providing grants to help counties replace them.

One other sticking point was why the bridge was rated for an 8-ton load in some paperwork and in other paperwork a 9 ton load. But West brought back an answer from the state on that.

He read a report on the bridge that said:

 “The existing bridge is posted for 8 tons appropriate based on the latest Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) load rating. The interior span beam is the controlling factor when rating this bridge for all trucks. The proposed bridge is a span structure with no piers in the railroad right of way and will not be load posted.

“It’s sized appropriately for all legal load limit vehicle as required by the federal funding in this project. The proposed bridge is also not fracture critical so it has redundancy within the design elements to mitigate but not completely eliminate the potential for catastrophic failure.”

The report continues, “The old bridge is fracture critical due to the old design of the piers and the interior span this means that if something fails on one of the piers or on the beam the whole bridge is likely to collapse on the railroad tracks.”

One of the sticking points for the commissioners is that the $2.3 million bridge would only provide access to farm fields and one or two residences on the west side of the bridge.                                                                                                                                     

Thompson pointed out that previous commissions had been putting away money for this, so when the time came to replace the bridge the county would have the funds. When the grant became available and the county’s share was 20%, the county applied and received the grant.

West explained to the commissioners that in his opinion there were only two reasonable solutions to this because of the type of bridge it is. One is to take care of this now while the county was only having to pay for 20% of the project or develop a funding plan so the money was there to fix it later when the bridge had to be replaced, possibly at full cost to the county. He pointed out that grants may not be available for this in the future and that construction prices were likely to increase.

West also reminded the commissioners that the county also had a second bridge built in 1990 on State Line Road that had the same problem.


McCullough said he did not just want to jump on this without considering options.

Hightower pointed out that this project has been in the works for years while McCullough was on the commission. He asked why McCullough didn’t question the project before this.

Johnson asked Hightower if it were his money wouldn’t he hesitate at the $139,000 increase. 

Hightower answered that construction prices on all levels is concerning and this increase is not unusual.

McCullough said the county should get a plan together and figure out options instead of just jumping into this.

Johnson said that was where he was at too.

McCullough asked Lamb how much was in the special road and bridge fund.

Lamb said there was about $1.2 million.

Lamb said,  “If you look at this whole project and how long it has been going on, the only thing that is a recent development is the increase in cost. This is not something we just jumped into recently. We have been working on it for years. Just something to consider.”

Hightower asked what the county’s liability was if they waited on doing the construction and the bridge fails.


“It depends on a lot of things,” Thompson said. “If there is contributing negligence on the part of the person using it. If they could make a case that we were negligent. We have some sovereign immunity that limits our liability. But I would not be comfortable saying that we would not have any liability particularly if the could make the argument that we were negligent.

“We knew that it was risky and we didn’t replace it. I don’t think we are getting that argument. We are not getting a statement that the bridge is damaged in any way.” 

“It’s not the condition, it’s the type of bridge,” said West.

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