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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Publisher

Opinion: Commission's failure to approve bridge an act of negligence

By Roger Sims, publisher

The refusal by the Linn County Commission to approve a $1.79 million state and federal grant to replace the Hell’s Bend bridge is irresponsible at best. But like many other observers in the county, we consider the refusal to set the project in motion an act of deliberate negligence.

What’s more, the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) may step in and close the bridge at any time. And the commission has been advised by experts that failure to accept the grant and replace the bridge may lead to KDOT withholding grant money from Linn County for five years or longer. 

Those grants fund an ongoing bridge replacement program in the county, and lack of state money would likely impact that program.

There are many problems with the Hell’s Bend bridge, which will cost about $1.79 million to replace.

First, it doesn’t serve very many people, and it will be a very costly bridge to replace. It will use up about a third of special bridge funds that have taken the county a few years to collect. However, the county has been preparing for the bridge replacement over the past several years, and it has its share of the money needed. And the current bridge will need to remain in place while its replacement is under construction.

Second, it is in Commission Chair Jason Hightower’s district, and the other two commissioners, Danny McCullough and Jim Johnson, don’t want to spend the money up there.

McCullough has asked for a list of bridges in the county, including those which are in most need of attention. He was provided with that list with priority bridges highlighted. Hell's Bend, highlighted in green, was the top bridge to be replaced. Yet the next week after he was given the list, he made the same request again.

The Hell’s Bend bridge, which was built in 1957 and is now about 67 years old, isn’t falling right now, and it leads to some farm ground and maybe a couple of residences. The problem is the way it was made: It’s known as a “fracture critical bridge,” and it has become a stated priority.

The Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore was a fracture critical bridge that collapsed earlier this year when a runaway container ship struck one of its pilings. That bridge collapsed like a house of cards, and despite valiant efforts of law enforcement personnel to halt traffic on the bridge just before the bridge struck, six road maintenance workers were caught by surprise and died in the accident.

So the problem with the Hell’s Bend bridge isn’t age (yet) or that it necessarily has identified structural defects, it’s that any stress that triggers an undetected structural weakness – whether from a tractor pulling a disk, a bus carrying students to a nature preserve on a field trip, a truck loaded with logs or a train derailment – would make the thing collapse into a twisted heap of metal and concrete.

Meanwhile Linn County has state grants and budgetary resources to replace the bridge.

There is a great deal of thought on the part of the commission that the Hell’s Bend bridge is a problem that, as one commissioner likes to put, is a can that be kicked down the road. At the same time, turning down the state's $1.79 million grant will mean at some point Linn County taxpayers will cough up money to replace the bridge at full cost.

Sure, there are other bridges that need to be addressed, particularly after the late April flooding. But for the Hell’s Bend bridge issue to go unaddressed could easily be a liability issue for the county in a year, a few years, or a month.

Replacing the bridge is the only solution to the problem, at least the most economical one. Land to the west of that bridge is hemmed in by the Marais des Cygnes River, and the only way to get here from there is – you guessed it – build another expensive bridge.

However, proceeding with the bid to replace the bridge now would kick that can down the road for another generation.

But to continue to stall in making the right decision could put the county on the hook for damages far beyond the $439,000 it will take to address the problem now. Neither McCullough or Johnson have given good, objective reasons for their refusal to fund the Hell’s Bend project.

However, the duty of the commission is to serve and protect all citizens of the county, and by refusing the state grant and proceeding with the long-planned replacement of a dangerous bridge, Johnson and McCullough are knowingly putting some of those citizens at risk of death or serious injury.

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