Not all Eastern Iowa communities want bridge funding

Some towns don't want help building new spans, or can't afford it

The Big Creek Road one-lane bridge over Big Creek is shown on Wednesday, July 3, 2013, in Bertram, Iowa. The bridge is n
The Big Creek Road one-lane bridge over Big Creek is shown on Wednesday, July 3, 2013, in Bertram, Iowa. The bridge is near the top of a state bridge replacement program, but Bertram has turned down the funding. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

BERTRAM — Not one but two one-lane bridges over Big Creek add charm to this little hamlet tucked off busy Highway 13 next to Union Pacific Railroad tracks, just east of Cedar Rapids.

The bridges, both built between 1890 and 1910, are restricted to carry no more than 8 tons of weight, and both rank as sufficiently obsolete, with deficiencies, to have climbed up an Iowa Department of Transportation city bridge replacement program list.

The bridge on Big Creek Road has made it high enough on the current fiscal year’s list of 94 bridges to have been offered funding twice now, in 2011 and 2013, to replace it. The other, on Ely Street, was offered funding in 2011.

Each time, though, the city of Bertram, population about 300, has turned down funding to replace the one-lane bridges with new two-lane bridges.

It turns out that not every city in line for bridge funding, which requires local matching money, wants it or can afford to take it.

“We don’t need a two-lane bridge,” said Angeline Brown, who has served as Bertram’s city clerk for some 40 years. “In the first place, we couldn’t afford it, not this town. And it’s not traveled that much. There’s no reason to replace it. No, we don’t want the (DOT) money.”

Neither John Dostart, an urban engineer in the DOT’s Office of Local Systems, nor Steve Gannon, Linn County engineer, say that either the Big Creek Road bridge or the Ely Street bridge over Big Creek in Bertram is about to fall down.

Brown said, too, that the city must have the bridges inspected every two years, and the Ely Street bridge, she adds, was damaged in the Flood of 2008 and has had repair work done as a result.

Not uncommon

In any event, it is not uncommon, the DOT’s Dostart says, for smaller Iowa cities to decline a grant from the DOT’s city bridge replacement program either because the city does not have the money to pay 20 percent of the construction cost, which is required, or because it wants to wait a few years to see if it can assemble the money needed for the replacement. A bridge stays on the list for a time even if a city turns down funding.

This year, Floris, population 138, Villisca, population 1,252, and Lowden, population 780, declined funding along with Bertram as did the bigger cities of Waterloo and Waverly, Dostart said.

The DOT’s role, Dostart said, is to monitor that cities inspect their bridges every two years. In the end, though, he says the cities own this group of bridges and it is up to the cities to decide what their spending priorities are. The state has some 950 cities, and the smaller the city, the larger the challenge can be to find the money to help replace a bridge, he said.

Scoring bridges

The DOT’s grant program to replace city bridges uses a formula to create a “replacement score,” which ranks bridges based on obsolescence and deficiency. The worst bridges that carry at least 25 vehicles a day rise to the top of the list.

Dostart says the DOT’s program currently expects to have about $8.4 million available in federal funds and about $500,000 in state funds to award on city bridge projects this year.

“We’re making progress,” he says. “The funding has crept up. We’re working our way through the list. With (94) bridges ... would we like more money? Of course.”

In 2012, the program offered funds to nine cities for bridge projects, six of which agreed to accept the funds.

One of the six, in Cedar Rapids, is a small bridge (replacement score of 31) at McCloud Place NE over McLoud Run, which when replaced will include a sidewalk that connects Center Point Road NE to the Cedar River Trail. The total estimated project cost is $772,000, and the DOT program grant is $617,000. Construction is slated for 2015.

The city of Cedar Rapids had planned to pay for the project itself, but the application process for the DOT bridge program is simple and hard not to pursue, said Doug Wilson, project manager in the city’s Public Works Department. “Regardless of the bridge to be replaced, if we can get $500,000 or more toward the replacement cost, (we will),” he said.

A second of the six bridges to secure funding in Eastern Iowa is a bridge over Mud Creek in the city of Tama, with a replacement score of 29.

In 2013, Dostart reports that the Eastern Iowa cites of West Union and Lansing have agreed to bridge grants for a West Union bridge over an unnamed stream with a replacement score of 27 and one for a Lansing bridge over Clear Creek with a score of 25.

Bertram’s bridge on Big Creek Road has a score of 23, and the city’s bridge on Ely Street has a score of 20, which is about halfway down the DOT’s list of 94 bridges.

Who owns the bridge?

Bertram City Clerk Brown says the city of Bertram at one point didn’t realize it owned the Big Creek Road bridge over Big Creek, and Linn County Engineer Steve Gannon says the approach to the bridge is about at the Bertram city limits and so the city had “thought” is belonged to Linn County or “pretended” it did.

Gannon says, too, that counties in Iowa in the past were responsible for city bridges that were extensions of county roads, but that arrangement changed a number of years ago, he says.

He says the Bertram bridge on Big Creek Road seemingly is less important to Bertram because the road immediately turns to a gravel county road on the south end of the bridge, while Bertram’s bridge on Ely Street leads south on a hard-surfaced road some distance before it gets to the city limits and enters the county.

At the same time, the expense to replace the Ely Street bridge is much higher because the bridge is longer. In 1997, the cost to replace the Big Creek Road bridge was estimated at $250,000 and the cost for the Ely Street bridge was put at $850,000, though those costs likely have doubled in today’s dollars and with today’s costs.

Funding from the DOT bridge replacement program would still leave the city of Bertram to pay, perhaps, $150,000 for the Big Creek Road bridge with the local match requirement and preconstruction costs, Gannon says.

“The Big Creek Road bridge happens to be in a place of limited interest from a community standpoint because there’s nothing on the other side of it that they think of as Bertram,” he says. “It’s hard for them to see spending $150,000 to replace that structure.”

Extra funds

In recent years, Bertram had a little more money than it has today for extra projects.

In fact, in the last 15 or so years, the city gained recognition in Linn County because at one point it was one of the only jurisdictions in the county that had agreed to put a 1-percent local-option sales tax in place.

Over the course of a few years, Bertram, which has a Cedar Rapids mailing address, discovered that businesses can only be so precise in assessing the local sales tax in a county where nearly all jurisdictions, including the metro area, don’t have the tax in place and the one that does has a Cedar Rapids mailing address.

In 2001, for instance, Bertram was receiving $144,520 a year in the sales tax revenue, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue. Today, with the tax in place in Cedar Rapids, the metro area and everywhere else in the county, the distribution formula brought Bertram only $32,403 in extra revenue in 2012, according to the state agency. The city also raises about $56,000 in property taxes and receives about $28,000 in revenue from the state road use tax in a year, according to its budget documents.

Linn County’s Gannon suspects that the city of Bertram likes the historic look of its two one-lane bridges over Big Creek, and over time, he says the county has helped with some fixes on the bridges.

But he adds that time marches on. And for old deficient bridges, the end sometimes comes in an instant, when someone crashes into them, the county engineer says. He points to a bridge on Artesian Road in Linn County that came down about 15 years ago when a farmer’s grain box hit one of the bridge supports.

At some point, too, cities and counties throw in the towel on bridges because it’s cheaper to close them than to fix them.

Gannon points to a bridge south of Bertram that sits abandoned today, “like a skeleton sitting there.”Another old bridge that had come to the end, the historic county-owned Chain Lakes Bridge, now serves pedestrians and those fishing at the Chain Lakes Natural Area, he said.

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