BERTRAM — This little town of 300 has liked its two century-old, one-lane bridges, but it has not had the local tax revenue to match bridge-repair money dangled by the state of Iowa to improve them.
Sunday night, one of the two bridges dropped into Big Creek, washed away in heavy rain and flash flooding.
Bertram Mayor James Drahos on Monday afternoon called the loss of the bridge at Ely Street “unfortunate” and said the immediate job at hand was to barricade the street on both sides of the creek so no one drove into the water.
Both the bridge at Ely Street and one to the east at Big Creek Road bring motorists into Bertram on county roads, the first from the south, the other from the east. Neither road is the main entry into the town, which is from the west off Highway 13. Cedar Rapids is to the west, too.
Drahos said it was “too soon” to know what Bertram might be able to do to replace the Ely Street bridge or if it would be replaced. However, he said the city will be seeing what federal and state help might be available to help.
“It will stay closed for now,” he said. “It definitely will make things inconvenient.”
In recent years, a special Iowa Department of Transportation bridge-replacement program has offered Bertram money to help replace both the Ely Street bridge and the Big Creek Road bridge. The state funds typically cover 80 percent of the cost up to $1 million for a bridge project, but that arrangement can still leave a small town like Bertram with a $200,000 bill.
John Dostart, an urban engineer in the DOT’s Office of Local Systems, said in early June that the city of Bertram turned down state funding help for both the Big Creek Road and Ely Street bridges this year. The program also offered funding for the Big Creek Road bridge in 2011 and 2013 and for the Ely Street bridge in 2011, he said.
Both bridges remain on the funding list, Dostart said in early June.
Just last week, Bertram’s Dostal, who was elected as mayor last November, called both the Ely Street and Big Creek Road bridges “historic bridges that mean a lot to the town and the state.” He said he was interested in trying to figure out a way to improve the bridges in the years ahead.
Steve Gannon, Linn County engineer, was at the site of the Bertram bridge collapse on Monday, and he said there was a chance that a big object like a downed tree in the flooding creek pounded into one the bridge supports to help take it down. A big tree was entangled in the bridge debris strewn in the creek, he said.
Water took parts of the bridge 50 to 100 feet downstream, he said.
Gannon said the two Bertram bridges were built between 1890 and 1910, and the bridge at Ely Street has been more costly than the Big Creek Road bridge to replace because it is longer.
Gannon said Linn County some years ago helped small cities by taking on debt for their projects, essentially playing the role of banker to allow cities to pay off debt over time.
Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson said on Monday that he would be open to playing such a role for a project like a bridge replacement in Bertram. Bertram is in Oleson’s District 4 supervisor district.