A Couple More Notes On The “Bridge To Nowhere”

I want to add a couple things to the Little Missouri River Crossing story I posted here yesterday.

First Note:

A little history, which you can read more fully by clicking on the link at the end of this note. I really didn’t become aware of the serious problems with this project until I attended a public meeting in Medora in 2012, which was called by Billings County Commission chairman Jim Arthaud, in compliance with some provisions of the Federal Highway Act. At that meeting I asked the county’s engineering firm, KLJ in Bismarck, who was going to pay for the bridge. I was told it was going to be 80 percent federal funds and 20 percent state and local funds. That’s why they were having the meeting—if federal funds were going to be used, the public needed to know about it and have something to say about it.

One of the proposed locations discussed at the meeting was indeed the Short Ranch, which was ultimately selected this year, about seven years later. At that meeting, both Con Short, the son of Congressman Don Short, who has since passed away, and Dave Short, Congressman Short’s grandson, both expressed their concern and opposition to the bridge—not just on their ranch, but anywhere in the Little Missouri River valley.

Someone asked Commission Chairman Arthaud where his preferred location was. He responded, “I can tell you where I think it needs to go. It needs to go on public land where it affects all the public, where it doesn’t affect private people.”

Arthaud was just paying lip service to the hundred or so people in the room, about 95 of whom were opposed to the idea of a bridge—anywhere. Pretty much everyone there knew that there were very few places in the Little Missouri River valley where there was accessible public land on both sides of the river, other than at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a location which was not going to be popular with the public. KLJ had pretty much boiled it down to two locations, both on private land—the Goldsberry Ranch about 4 miles north of north of the Elkhorn, or the Short Ranch, about four miles south of the Elkhorn.

The Goldsberry crossing didn’t make a lot of sense, because there would be no direct access to Medora. There’s a really rugged stretch of land called the Whitetail Creek Drainage which would be pretty much impossible to cross between Goldsberrys and Medora, so local traffic would have to be routed way east to Highway 85 if the county commissioners were going to make the argument they were building the bridge for the convenience of local ranchers.

That left the Short Ranch, which also doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it is pretty close to Medora, where there’s already a bridge, but that was the choice, and that’s where we are in this situation today. I wrote a pretty thorough history of the project in 2018, and included a map, and you can read it, and look at the map, by going here.

Second Note:

I mentioned that Billings County’s engineering firm, KLJ, said the project was going to be paid for with 80 per cent federal funds. We need to keep a close eye on that. There have been two recent stories in the newspapers about bridges all across the state being deficient, even to the point where the state had to get a special appropriation from the federal government to do some emergency repairs to dangerous bridges. You can read the stories about the sad state of North Dakota’s bridges here and here.

Aside from those special appropriations, there’s not much money for bridges in North Dakota’s allocation of federal highway funds. The state’s Department of Transportation gets to decide how to spend our allocation of federal highway funds.

Soon, (or maybe not so soon, depending on the progress and outcome of the lawsuit filed yesterday by the Short family) Billings County is going to come hat in hand asking for 10 or 12 million dollars to pay for their bridge. The DOT surely knows that any funds for bridges need to be spent bringing our deficient bridges up to date, and that new ones are not a high priority, especially in remote locations in the Bad Lands for a bridge Billings County Commissioners say is intended to just serve “local traffic.”

But the Billings County Commissioners’ first stop won’t be at the DOT office. It’ll be at the Governor’s office. Essentially it will be the Governor’s call on whether we spend our scant funds on this new bridge. Right now there are no federal funds proposed to be used for this project in the 2020-2023 State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP), drafted by our DOT, which you can look at it if you want to by going here. The plan was just published in October. But a phone call  from the Governor to DOT director Bill Panos can change that in a hurry. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it to see if the Governor makes that call between now and the time the plan is updated next October.

Meanwhile, if you bump into the Governor, it would be okay to mention to him that any federal funds available for bridges in North Dakota should be spent fixing bridges back in your county, and not on a new $15 million Bridge to Nowhere in the Bad Lands.

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