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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

Commission stalls on Hell's Bend bridge, green-lights others

Updated: May 9

The Hell's Bend bridge project, a project that has been on the Linn County Commission's plate for about 30 months, remains in limbo as commissioners look for alternatives. (Journal file photo)


By Charlene Sims, info@linncountyjournal.com


MOUND CITY – The Linn County Commissioners on Monday, April 29, approved Public Works Director Shaun West applying for two grants for replacing bridges in Linn County while at the same time postponing an approval on a grant they had received to replace the Hell’s Bend bridge. 


Hell’s Bend bridge, built in 1957, is on 2300 Road and spans the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad tracks. It is the only access to land across the railroad tracks for farmers and a few residences. 


They had received a grant for the Hell’s Bend Bridge from the state in December 2023 but turned it down because they thought the cost was too high and were concerned because there was only one bidder. The vote then to turn it down was 2 to 1 with Commission Chair Jason Hightower voting “no.”


At that time, 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.


After talking with the county’s on-call engineer Jason Hoskinson from BG Consultants at the Feb. 5 meeting, they asked him to reapply for the grant if possible and to renegotiate with the state to make some modifications to the regulations on the grant. These included the time frame for completion and some regulations about requiring a flag man for the railroad. 


The commissioners had also asked that the engineer look at building an at-grade crossing rather than a bridge at that location. However, that cost was higher than the bridge costs and was rejected by the BSNF railroad.


The bid on the first grant received would have made the county share of the bridge cost $505,000. There was only one bid, likely due to the strict regulations on time and railroad issues including a flagman required with no cap on his amount of hours.


The current bid has two bidders and the lowest bid was for $1.99 million with the county’s share being $439,000 plus engineering and right-of-way costs. The state would pay $1.79 million.


The deadline for them to accept this bid is June 6. West explained that this bid required that the county pay nearly $70,000 less than the first bid.


Hightower asked if that money was in the special road and bridge fund.


County Clerk David Lamb said that the bridge fund a little over $1.2 million and much of that was put into that fund for the Hell’s Bend project.


McCullough asked, “So as far as our records show there is nothing wrong with this bridge?”


West said that there are inspection reports but he could not tell them what the details of those reports are.


“The bridge itself is not in dire need or critical at this point. It’s the engineering of this bridge that they no longer want in the inventory because its propensity to fail,” said West.


“Can we have somebody look at the reports say about what repairs are needed?” asked Commissioner Jim Johnson.


“We can have that looked at, but from discussing it with the engineers, they’re not as concerned about the bridge condition at this point as they are about the bridge type,” answered West. “And the fact of the funding to get these off the inventory won’t be around. 


“It is very costly to replace this bridge, but what the engineers are telling me that without these grant opportunities to keep this in the inventory and lose the grant funding would mean that we would sole fund this bridge at a cost larger than what we have in our special road and bridge.”


McCullough asked about how often these grant applications came up. He said he sees them a lot so thinks that grants will always be available. 


McCullough said he thought the county had bigger issues than just this bridge. He asked West if the only problem with the bridge is that it is old.


It is a critical fracture bridge, Hightower said.


“So hire a different engineering company, that doesn’t like that kind of bridge,” said McCullough. “Our reports said the bridge was fine, right?”


West said that he cannot say that it is fine. 


“We get those reports in, and you’re talking about right at or about 200 bridges. And then to go through all of those engineering reports and prioritize those is not in my wheelhouse,” said West. 


Commissioner Danny McCullough expressed his concerns that bidders put in low bids and then made change orders and raised the cost. He said he knew this because this was the business he was in.


The same arguments for and against were used at the April meeting as when the grant was declined in January.


West explained that this was a “fracture critical bridge” which is defined as a steel bridge with members in tension in which there is no load path structural or internal redundancy. He said that this meant that if one of the parts of the bridge failed there would be no redundancy to its load-bearing and the bridge would fall.


West gave them information distributed by the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) about a Pennsylvania fracture critical bridge that collapsed with three vehicles and a transit bus. The article, "Maintenance and Oversight Failures Led to 2022 Pittsburgh Bridge Collapse", published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Feb. 21, 2024.

In that collapse, The Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had six vehicles, including a transit bus on it when it fell 100 feet. No one was killed but several sustained injuries. To read this article that the commissioners received, go to https://www.ntsb.gov/news/press-releases/Pages/NR20240221.aspx


An article in The Baltimore Banner on March 28, said the recent collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore that was hit by a container ship might not have been so quick if it had not been a fracture critical bridge. Bridges that are not fracture critical might stay intact at first, which gives people a chance to get off the bridge before it falls. Fracture critical bridges go down in seconds.


West pointed out that the reason he had sent the Maryland bridge collapse report to the commissioners was so they understood the liability involved if the bridge did collapse.


Bridge failures in other states lead the impetus toward questioning of these bridges and increased inspections. One of the most noteworthy failures was in 1967, when the Point Pleasant Bridge over the Ohio River (also know as the Silver Bridge) collapsed resulting in 46 deaths. The failure investigation showed that the fracture was due to brittle propagation of a tiny crack in the I-bar (an I-beam type support used in bridge construction). So a small crack in the I-bar led to to the collapse of the bridge.


Another collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in 1983 was caused by the failure of a pin and hanger assembly. (AISC, Bridge Crossings, January 2015, “Are You Sure That’s Fracture Critical,” by Connor, Frank, McEleney and Yadlosky) at: https://www.aisc.org/globalassets/modern-steel/archives/2015/01/bridgexings.pdf


While the Hell’s Bend bridge is an access to a few resident’s on the other side of the railroad track, landowners on the other side cross the bridge with farm equipment and heavy trucks, West said. The other issue is that if it were to collapse it would block the railroad tracks below.


The county has already spent over $70,000 on engineering and purchasing right of ways as well as many manhours for the past 30 months on this project.


West explained that no one wants to be responsible for having these bridges on their inventory so the state and federal government are offering counties help to remove them.


“Annually, as long as there is money there, and right now part of the money that is going to this is from the federal infrastructure bill which has a few more years left on it,” Hoskinson told the commissioners at the Feb. 5 meeting. “Whether that money remains after that, it’s up to Washington.”


Hoskinson also told them that the money was available on a first-come-first-served basis.


Commissioner Jim Johnson asked if West would just look at what repairs the bridge needs now.


West said they could do that but his concern was that funding would not be around much longer for these bridges. In the future, the county may have to pay the full cost of having the bridge rebuilt. 


Hightower said that he thought the county should be moving forward with the new bid. He pointed out that the county had already invested time and money in the project.


Johnson said that was a lot of money to spend on a bridge that not a lot of people were using. 


McCullough said that he thought the county had bigger issues on other bridges. He asked that West put a traffic counter on the bridge to see what the volume of traffic was.


West said that he would bring more information back to the commissioners including the traffic count.


West sent the commissioners a spreadsheet with bridges that need to be replaced or repaired before the meeting. West said that that the two that Kaw Valley engineers identified as needing to be replaced rather quickly and needed grant monies to replace them.


He pointed out that these were on the list and fit the criteria of the grant program and the dollars on these grant programs may disappear in the next five years.


“So we looked at the length of the bridges and the cost of the bridges as well as the damage and the necessity to repair or replace the bridges,” said West. “With those two grant opportunities that came out of that meeting. The first is for the older federally funded bridges.”


The bridge that was identified for this grant is located at 1095 south of 1650 Road. The length and condition of this bridge is why it was recommended for the program.  


The program is a 90%/10% match that would pay up to $2 million less engineering fees and right-of-way purchases. He said in this location the county did not need any right-of-way purchases.


The second bridge is an off-system bridge which is located on east 1950 Road. The bridge’s condition makes it a good fit for the program. This program, because it is an off-system bridge, would pay 100% up to $2 million less the engineering costs and right-of-way purchases. In this area, West also did not expect any right-of-way purchases.


West said that the cost of applying for these grants would be simply a couple hours each of the negotiated engineering costs with Kaw Valley. For four hours of our engineering fees, the county could make application and there is no commitment until the grants are awarded and accepted when there are dollar amounts to discuss.


He said that that would get some of the older bridges off of the once-a -year  inspections because the county biannually inspects bridges with the exception of underwater, critical fracture and bridges that are in such poor repair that the county is required to inspect them yearly.


West said that these bridges meet those qualifications and he said he would like to look at the possibility of grant funding and bringing those numbers back to the commission.  


All three commissioners said they were not opposed to applying for the grants.

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