West of Monett on Farm Road 1050 is one of the most unusual bridges on a public road in southwest Missouri. On the south side of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) track is a bridge constructed entirely of railroad ties extending over an overflow ditch for Clear Creek, extending for about 15 feet.
According to Ron Bertalotto, who has a farm adjacent to the bridge, the structure has not changed in over 50 years, though the wood may have been changed from time to time. Now the bridge has become an issue withno resolution in sight.
Last month Bertalotto made a presentation to the City Council in Pierce City. Aldermen subsequently passed a resolution calling the bridge "unsafe for the general public," asking for it to be replaced immediately.
The bridge became more of an issue over the winter.
Don Gripka, commissioner with the Pierce Special Road District, has been keenly aware of the bridge and its shortcomings for years.
"We won't take our equipment over the bridge to plow the roads," Gripka said. "A school bus got stuck.
The Pierce City R-6 School District has not sent its school bus over the bridge for six years. The district sends its bus south to Highway 60 and back north on Farm Road 1090 to pick up children south of the railroad tracks.
After the February blizzard, Bertalotto said he had to take his tractor down to help push snow. On a daily basis he worries about the school bus, which has to turn around or back out completely hidden to other northbound traffic by a series of hills. Several years ago, two teens driving down the road at a high rate of speed were killed while apparently hill surfing. Bertalotto believes any vehicle could potentially drive into the bus.
Previous attempts have been made to replace the bridge. Lawrence County Western Commissioner Rodney Barnes and Gripka both recall a meeting around six years ago with railroad officials at the bridge. At the time a verbal agreement for replacement seems to have been worked out.
"[Then-Presiding Commissioner] Joe Ruscha and I were there and maybe all three of the Pierce Road District commissioners," Barnes said. "We made an agreement that the railroad would replace the bridge with a precast concrete culvert. The road district would do some of the work. The bridge is on railroad right-of-way. We've heard nothing from them since then. I know they move slowly, but I really think they've forgotten about it."
Gripka recalled the railroad was going to supply a concrete bridge abutment and use its crane to put the structure in place.
"We would get it ready, put a driving surface over it and put fill in around it," Gripka said. "The last time they came back, they said [the engineer at the meeting] moved on and all the paperwork has been lost. We were back to ground zero."
The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) set a seven-ton weight limit on the bridge in 2002, which is posted on a sign. Bertalotto said he has seen grain trucks and semis use the bridge where the drivers may not have been aware of weight issues or may not have seen turning around as an alternative. Both Bertalotto and Gripka agree the bridge has deteriorated in recent years, especially after floods in 2008 and 2009.
"Four years ago I was down there again with a MoDOT inspector looking at the load limit," Barnes recalled. "I think a loaded school bus weighs eight tons. The last thing we want is a school bus coming across that thing and falling in."
Andy Williams, BNSF director of public affairs for the Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska region, released the following statement about the bridge:
"BNSF and the county did discuss replacing the bridge several years ago, but no agreement was reached. BRO [federal Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program] funds are available to replace the bridge, and BNSF is open to the idea of conveying ownership of the bridge to the county to take advantage of this opportunity. In the meantime, BNSF has continued to inspect the bridge twice a year and will also obtain an independent evaluation of its condition."
Lawrence County Presiding Commissioner Sam Goodman welcomed the railroad's interest in making improvements.
"Insofar as taking it into our system, if they want to turn it over, and there's no maintenance, we'd be glad to take it," Goodman said. "If there's a cost share to be done, we're not going to commit a BRO bridge to that. We've got much more severe bridges we are going to take care of before that one, based on bridge ratings and traffic."
The offer did not open any doors in Gripka's view.
"We [the road district] would like to see it replaced," Gripka said. "We would go our share on filling it in. Ron Bertalotto has offered the fill. We don't feel it's our business to put the whole expense into it. It's the railroad's bridge. The railroad isn't poor."
Lawrence County was due to have all of its bridges inspected by MoDOT in 2011. Findings in the report concerning the railroad bridge will be available in another month.