Bridge project part of wide infrastructure debate

Richland County's bridge project is moving forward thanks to an 80 percent-20 percent agreement between the state of North Dakota and the county.

It’s awful hard to write off $80,000.

Spent on engineering costs and land acquisition near Mantador, North Dakota, the figure is one component of a bridge repair project. The project is part of a wider debate on infrastructure needs.

“Abandoning a bridge does nothing for a community,” said Jesse Sedler, an engineer for the Richland County Highway Department. “If we do nothing, we keep falling further and further behind the eight ball. If we keep abandoning bridges, we close them off to our residents.”

Bridge abandonment has been common since before Sedler’s time, he said. Years ago, Richland County, North Dakota, had as many as 450 bridges.

Over the years, many bridges have been replaced by culverts, box culverts and low-water crossings. Still other bridges have been removed or closed. Richland County currently has 122 out-and-out bridges, Sedler said.

“If we (repair) a bridge, we usually have to abandon 1-2 others unless we get the money to build again,” Sedler said.

With a 3-2 vote in May, the Richland County Commissioners approved repair of the Mantador bridge. Its primary function is access to the Hankinson Hills Campground.

Industrial Builders, Inc., West Fargo, North Dakota, placed a $1,206,692.55 bid for the project. Wanzek Construction, Fargo, placed a $1,670,407.60 bid. Sedler’s office estimated the project would cost $1,079,840.25.

Not that Richland County would be paying for all of the bridge project. It’s moving forward thanks to an 80 percent-20 percent agreement between the state of North Dakota and the county.

“We looked at six bridges that could use this kind of funding,” Sedler said. “However, the North Dakota Department of Transportation is selective about where the money can go. Out of the six, this bridge was one of two that would best fit (the project criteria).”

Commissioners Dan Thompson, Tim Campbell and Nathan Berseth voted in favor of the repairs. Commissioners Rollie Ehlert and Sid Berg voted against the repairs.

“The state dictates what we can and can’t do in these 80-20 situations,” Berseth said. “When we’re limited like that, the viewpoint is that if we don’t move forward, we’re going to fall even farther behind. It’s hard to leave 80 percent on the table.”

Opposing votes were made with the understanding that Sedler’s department faces disadvantages.

“I feel sorry for Jesse,” Berg said. “The bridges are ancient. Everything’s changed. Here we have a new engineer trying to make the right decisions. He’s doing a great job and has had a load of crap dumped onto him.”

Declining infrastructure isn’t a problem exclusive to Richland County. The National League of Cities reviewed 153 State of the City addresses delivered between January-April.

“More than half of the country’s mayors discussed infrastructure at length,” the Washington Times reported. “(It’s) double the number from four years ago.”

While a national infrastructure plan has not yet been approved, local municipalities are toughening up. Joseph Kane, the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, said there’s no longer an attitude of waiting for Washington.

“Regardless of whether they are red or blue, large or small, cities and states know they cannot keep fixing things with duct tape and wire,” Kane said. “They are trying to tackle it on their own.”

Earlier in 2019, the North Dakota Legislature passed the “Prairie Dog Infrastructure” bill. Richland County is expected to receive $4.8 million in funding each biennium from bill revenue.

The first revenue is expected in spring 2021. In the meantime, leaders continue their balancing act.

“We want to be prudent with our dollars,” Berseth said. “The longer we wait, the more things cost. There is nothing better than putting money in infrastructure that’s going to create opportunity and renew a robust economy.”

The next Richland County Commissioners meeting is scheduled for 8 a.m. Tuesday, June 18 at the Richland County Courthouse in Wahpeton.

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