Missouri River bridge may not take its toll much longer - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 12:44 am
Missouri River bridge may not take its toll much longer

DECATUR, Neb. — For nearly six decades, travelers and locals crossing a two-lane, metal-grate bridge have paid a toll to get over the Missouri River.

That toll, currently $1 per car, will likely end this year if, as expected, the states of Iowa and Nebraska move to take over the span.

The bridge, maintained by the Burt, Neb., County Bridge Commission, long has served as a vital transportation link between Nebraska and Iowa. It's the only Missouri River bridge for 80 miles between Sioux City and Blair.

“We need a bridge somewhere ... and this is one still in pretty good shape,” said Mark Traynowicz, Nebraska's state bridge engineer. “In order to keep the link open, we have to keep this bridge open and maintained.”

The Nebraska Highway Commission on Friday gave its stamp of approval to the state taking over the toll bridge.

The Highway Commission voted unanimously to support taking over the bridge, though one member was absent, said Mary Jo Oie, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Roads.

The bridge's maintenance costs would be split under the plan, with Iowa expected to pick up 74 percent and Nebraska 26 percent, according to the Roads Department. The majority of the bridge is in Iowa.

A number of issues still must be hammered out by Iowa and Nebraska and with the Bridge Commission, including how to divide responsibilities between the states and what payments and benefits will be due to the 15 or so toll booth employees who will lose their jobs.

Clark Beck, the Bridge Commission's secretary-treasurer, said it has been trying to give the two states responsibility for the bridge for nearly a decade.

For a while, the effort did not get very far. Neither state was eager to take the bridge, which is narrow by modern standards, at less than 24 feet wide. But costs to maintain the bridge have exceeded what the commission could afford.

Traynowicz said that while the bridge has been well-maintained by the Bridge Commission, major repairs would require the passage of a bond issue or an increase in toll fees. And at some point in the next two decades, the bridge will need to be replaced — something the Bridge Commission couldn't pay for on its own.

“The toll revenue raised by the bridge is really not enough to continue to maintain the bridge,” said Norm McDonald, the Iowa Department of Transportation's director of the Office of Bridges and Structures.

In the 2011 floods, the river eroded the approaching road on the Iowa side, closing the bridge for four months.

The closing served as a reminder of the bridge's importance to people in both states.

Barry Clayton, 55, who runs a photo studio in Onawa, Iowa, figures he lost $10,000 in business that year because people in Nebraska couldn't make it across the river.

“It just killed my business,” he said. “That bridge, it's (really) important.”

People in the Decatur area also need access to Onawa, said Emmett Hennig of Decatur. Most, for example, receive medical care at Burgess Health Center in Onawa.

“We've gotten dependent on each other,” Hennig said of the two communities. The 2010 Census recorded Onawa's population as 2,298 and Decatur's as 481.

The Bridge Commission brings in nearly $500,000 per year in toll revenue. During peak summer months, about 2,000 vehicles per day use the bridge, Beck said.

McDonald said the bridge needs about $600,000 in structural steel work. In addition, regular maintenance totals about $100,000 per year, which McDonald said is not an unusual amount for a bridge of that size.

Toll fees would be eliminated because Nebraska law does not allow the state to operate toll bridges.

Doing away with the toll would save locals some money. Aaron Stangel, a pharmacist and manager of Stangel Pharmacy in Onawa, estimated that the family business spends $600 per year because it makes a delivery run to Decatur almost every day. Decatur farmer Scott Smith said he spends about $400 per year.

But it will also deprive the Decatur economy of the $10.50 per hour paid to the toll takers, mostly retirees.

“It's two-edged, you know?” said Mark Siecke, 53, who was working in the white frame toll house on the Nebraska side of the river Wednesday. “It's hard to determine what kind of an economic impact it's going to have.”

Phil Teeters, 76, the other toll taker working that afternoon, said he wasn't concerned for his own personal finances. “We just won't have quite as much money,” he said.

Bridge once spanned only dry land

DECATUR, Neb. — Some 60 years ago, a bridge connecting Iowa and Nebraska may have been the original bridge to nowhere.

The Missouri River has long flowed just east of Decatur. But in the 1940s, the river rerouted itself about a quarter-mile farther east.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it would put the river back to its old channel, so the bridge was built over dry land, which was cheaper than building over water. The bridge was completed in 1951, but by then the Korean War was raging, and the country had other priorities.

For years the bridge spanned only dry land. The roadway came to an abrupt halt at what had become the west bank of the Missouri. No road connected to the bridge on its east side.

The bridge became a joke to politicians, who had to decide whether to appropriate the funds to reroute the river. An Associated Press article published in the New York Times described it as Decatur's “principal claim to fame.”

Even after the war, Congress balked at paying to reroute the river. Heated arguments took place in congressional appropriations committees.

Finally, Congress approved the funds. The river was rerouted and the first vehicle rolled across on Dec. 19, 1955. The bridge officially opened on May 5, 1956, during Decatur's centennial celebration.

Sources include the city of Decatur and the archives of The World-Herald and the New York Times.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1310, andrew.nelson@owh.com

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