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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Sims, Journal staff

County alternative to bridge would exceed replacement cost

A report from an engineer to the Linn County Commission indicated that cutting through the rock on each side of the Hell's Bend bridge to create an at-grade crossing would cost more than replacing the bridge. The idea also got a thumbs-down from the railroad. (Journal file photo)

By Charlene Sims,

MOUND CITY  – Jason Hoskinson from the engineering firm BG Consultants met with the Linn County Commission on Monday, Feb. 5, to provide commissioners with information about changes they were looking at for the Hell’s Bend Bridge.

During that discussion, the engineer told the commissioners that their alternative plan for the bridge would cost more than the original bid commissioners turned down in January.

At the Jan. 2 meeting, the commissioners voted 2 to 1 to turn down the only bid that had been received to replace the bridge. The deadline for accepting the bid was Jan. 5. The bid for $2.3 million was higher than expected, raising the county’s share of the 80/20 grant from $306,000 to $505,000. 

Commission Chair Jason Hightower voted no on turning it down, expressing concern about how the county would fund replacing this bridge in the future without a grant. 

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 the process. It’s going to be another four or five year project for the next group if they are going the same route.

The commissioners and county staff have worked on developing this project since before the grant was received in October 2020. West told the commissioners in January 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.

But last month, Commissioners Danny McCullough and Jim Johnson wanted to see if a reletting of bids was possible and if not, they wanted to look at other options. One of the options talked about was an at-grade crossing. 

That would include building a road down the hillside on each side of the  railroad tracks, then building a crossing and a road up the other side of the incline. Under that plan, the current bridge would remain until the road was built. In the new plan, the current bridge will remain until the new bridge is built.

Hoskinson, from BG Consultants, was selected to look into the other options that the commission wanted to consider in hopes that the bid would be lower. 

He said it would be a 25 to 30 foot cut to get down to the railroad, a significant excavation to get through rock. There’s already some pretty steep slopes, especially to the west, so its going to extend the project out substantially, probably take some more right of way as well.  

Hoskinson continued, “We did run some bid averages for rock excavation and we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.75 to $3 million to remove that bridge and construct it as an at-grade crossing.”

That would be more than the previous bid of $2.3 million, and the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad said that they would not permit an at-grade crossing at that location, he said.

Hoskinson explained that sometimes railroads are quick to say no but after working through a process to get them to come back to the table usually the solution that works there would be if you want to propose and at-grade crossing, they would want you to remove several other at-grade crossings around the county. 

“So, have we asked for it to go back out for bid again,” asked Commission Chair Jason Hightower.

“No, not yet, not right now,” said Hoskinson. “Have you guys sent anything to KDOT  requesting them to rebid the project?”

“Not yet,” said Public Works Director Shaun West.

Hoskinson told the commissioners that he did talk to the bidders or potential bidders. When KDOT advertises these projects out to the construction industry, they publicly advertise it and then they also send notices to qualified contractors.

“The word that we got from some of the potential bidders was, and KDOT puts the bid documents together, the word we got was that the time to build it was too tight so their bids included liquidated damages because they were anticipating going over the contract time,” said Hoskinson. “That would be one aspect to help bring the cost down a little bit.”

Hoskinson told the commissioners that KDOT did say there was room and they could extend the contract time out. It would basically give contractors more flexibility on when they would want to start the project and how long it would take to finish the project.

One of the big drivers is just the railroad, unknown costs and risks associated with the railroad, explained Hoskinson.

Hoskinson said he had been talking to KDOT about if there is a way to pull that risk off of the contractor and more on KDOT and the county. Basically the contractor is going to look at that, and if they are working in the railroad right of way they have to have a certified railroad flagger and they cost something like $2,500 per day.

So the contractor is going to factor that in for the duration of the contract even though a lot of work can be done off to the sides of the railroad, he said. The flagger would need to be there when the girders are set over the railroad.

“Having some conversations with them about that and what that would look like, even if that would make sense, it doesn’t make sense to take that risk off of the contractor but they’ve built some price into that,” said Hoskinson.

Hoskinson said the other factor was just lack of competition in the area. The Kansas City contractors are really busy right now in the metro area, and they see a railroad and the complications with this project it just kind of turns them off.

“If you want to pursue it again, I think we definitely need to approach KDOT and say we need to extend the time out as much as we can as much as it is feasible and try to garner some more interest and see what we can get from there,” said Hoskinson.

“Will the grant money still be available?” asked Commissioner Jim Johnson.

“So, it’s federally funded and right now, yes, those federal funds are still coming through,” Hopkinson said. “The way KDOT has set up there program it’s kind of first come, first serve sort of thing. So if your project is ready to go in the next round of funding, it would be available for that money.

“My understanding is I think they still have some funds available in the round that we were currently planned to be in so the project needs to bid before the end of this current fiscal year which is the end of September.

Commissioner Danny McCullough said he was reading on the internet and these grant opportunities come up quite often.

“Annually, as long as there is money there,” said Hoskinson. “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. Whether that money remains after that, it’s up to Washington.”

Hoskinson told the commissioners that as far as life expectancy on the existing bridge it’s kind of anybody’s guess.

Hoskinson said the life expectancy of a bridge is based on the materials and the quality of everything that went into it and we don’t really know everything about it from 66 years ago.

“So, to try to put a number on how long is this thing going to last is kind of hard to say, it could last another 25 years potentially,” said Hoskinson. “A new bridge, new materials, new quality, we would look at a 75-year service life.”

Hoskin explained to them that the existing bridge is fracture critical, which doesn’t necessarily mean it is on the verge of failing right now. What that means is that part of the steel members in it are in tension, and if one of them pops the whole bridge goes down.

“So think of the Minnesota collapse, the interstate collapse that was a critical fracture bridge. One little piece failed and the whole bridge came down,” said Hoskinson. “That’s what we got kinda going on here with this bridge. Here the components to it are the piers, so the vertical components holding the bridge up is what’s kind of critical. And if that goes down obviously it’s on a railroad, and that would be substantial.

“You’re not worried about it going down, your just saying it’s not up to today’s standards,” said McCullough.

“Right, it’s not up to today’s standards. I don’t believe it’s probably on the verge of failing,” said Hoskinson. 

Hoskinson said he thought the inspections reports would have noticed that. There are annual inspections that have to be done because of that fracture critical classification, and those reports would identify to you whether or not it’s on the verge of collapse.

“So, when we applied for this grant, we probably had to send our inspection in for that. Why did they choose us to do this bridge?” asked McCullough.

It is deteriorating, said Hoskinson. It is getting older.  Some of the components to it are in need of repair and then the fracture critical component. There’s a push from the federal government to get all the fracture critical bridges off of the system.

“It scored high primarily because of age and because it’s fracture critical,” said Hoskinson.

“What’s it cost to rebid it?” asked Johnson. 

Hoskinson said he did not believe there was any cost to rebid it.

The commissioners decided to see if the state would rebid it for them. 

McCullough asked about the time frame and Hoskinson explained that contractors were concerned about paying penalties when they were having to wait for steel to be delivered.

Hoskinson said opening up the time frame so that contractors could start next year and have 200 days to complete the job rather than 100 days might encourage bidders.

He said that the county should have that conversation with KDOT about extending the date out as far as possible. 

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