BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Local and state officials met for the first time officially Thursday in an effort to get a study started looking at options for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe bridge connecting Iowa and Illinois in Fort Madison.
The group constitutes a selection committee that will be voting on proposals from engineering consulting firms to see how the bridge can become more user friendly for area industries.
Members of the selection committee include Zach James of Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission, Larry Driscoll and David Varley from the City of Fort Madison, Felicia Morgan with BNSF, Denise Boyer with Hall Towing and the Southeast Iowa Economic and Port Authority, Darrell Allman with Iowa Fertilizer Company, and Allan Luers with Axalta Coating Systems.
The City of Fort Madison is the lead agent for the study and will serve as the financial agent for all grants and funds used to pay for the study. The study is projected to cost $360,000 with $288,000 being shared by the Illinois and Iowa Departments of Transportation and the city picking up the remaining $72,000. Iowa Fertilizer Co. has agreed to pay $40,000 of the city’s share.
Allman said during the meeting that he was surprised that more business and industries haven’t shared in the cost of the study.
“I really am surprised as an industry participant that there isn’t a little more support from industry in the area,” Allman said. “I think, not just the community, but any business that has something to gain by having that bridge opened up could help.”
Varley said the response to requests from Mayor Brad Randolph for business and industries to help with the city’s share of the project has been poor.
“The mayor is still working on it, but it’s been very disappointing.”
Allman said other businesses not wanting to participate in the cost of the study sends a message.
“I don’t want this taken the wrong way, but I don’t want to feel like I’m going to put in a significant contribution that a lot of other people will be able to take advantage of, but they don’t want to participate in.”
Allman said maybe as the project progresses and real cost figures are kicked around, more businesses will want to be part of it.
James said it’s been his experience that people want to know more about projects before they are willing to jump in.
“I know there were a couple businesses in particular that we’ve heard from over the past couple years as we’ve been talking about it, that have been very interested, but haven’t been interested enough to help yet.”
Discussions on a bridge feasibility study began back in 2014 under former City Manager Byron Smith. Conversations at that time focused on the scope and cost of the study. From 2015-2017 James and Mike Norris with SEIRPC and others worked with the state DOTs on funding avenues and then in 2018 finalized the scope of the study and firmed up funding.
In 2008, BNSF imposed a 30-ton, 60-foot embargo on trucks using the bridge due to the challenging geometry of the bridge, which impacted the distribution and ability of businesses and industries in southeast Iowa.
The group is hoping the study comes up with plans to address the configurations of the bridge that caused the embargo, and also hope it addresses approaches that could straighten out the bridge and allow for easier access on and off, which would allow full length and full load trucks to use the bridge.
A request for proposals will be going out in the next week or two to engineering firms experienced in handling large scale structures like the bridge. Criteria of the proposals would include structural inspections, planning level designs, live load ratings, permitting information, summaries of previous bridge studies, impact to rail line operations, life-cycle cost analysis; and multiple alternatives to improve the bridge to be able to handle 40-ton loads.
Iowa DOT has a requirement that Disadvantaged Business Enterprises have a “maximum practicable opportunity” to participate in the performance of contracts financed in whole or in part with federal aid highway funds.
James said he would hope the committee could have a firm selected before November with the study starting in January.
“It’s my hope that we can get a study sometime in the fall so we can actually start talking about moving forward.”