Nonprofit Group Appeals Decision Regarding BNSF Rail Bridge

Written by Jennifer McLawhorn, Managing Editor
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The Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge spans the Missouri River between Bismarck, N.D., and Mandan, N.D.
Bruce Kelly

BISMARCK, N.D. - After BNSF has started construction on its Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, Friends of the Rail Bridge have appealed to the North Dakota Supreme Court over bridge ownership.

RT&S has reported on the BNSF Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge in North Dakota in the past few weeks. Over the next few years, BNSF will construct a new rail bridge over the Missouri River. The current rail bridge is 1,470 feet long and was built over one hundred forty years ago. Once the new rail bridge has been built, BNSF will demolish the current rail bridge to allow freight traffic to continue while construction is taking place. The Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge “needs to be replaced with a modern structure for safety and efficiency,” according to BNSF.

According to the Bismarck Tribune, a nonprofit citizen group called Friends of the Rail Bridge has challenged “a state district judge’s ruling in June that upheld a decision by the state Department of Water Resources in April to grant BNSF two sovereign land permits – the final hurdle the railroad needed to clear to launch construction.” One of the permits is for the removal of the current rail bridge, and the other is for construction of the new one.

Along with the Downtown Business Association, FORB does not “oppose a new bridge – it wants to see the existing one turned into a pedestrian bridge tourist attraction.” A North Dakota State University feasibility study showed the proposed pedestrian bridge would cost under $7 million, but FORB has not raised any funds so far.

The appeal by FORB was not “immediately formally filed.” It argued that “Water Resources didn’t adequately consider the possible impacts of the bridge project. . . and contended that the state actually owns the bridge.” However, BNSF asserts that it “has clear title” and Attorney General Drew Wrigley agreed.

South Central District Judge Jackson Lofgren dismissed the appeal by FORB because the group “failed to comply with state law” when FORB did not get a hearing with Water Resources. Judge Lofgren disagreed when FORB said that it made a hearing request last December, and that in addition to public meetings, it had fulfilled the requirement. 

FORB is in the middle of an appeal with Judge Lofgren’s decision, and its attorneys Bill Delmore and Lyle Witham have maintained two claims. Firstly, “Water Resources issued the permits without preparing an official record of everything that factored into the decision,” a move that is “in conflict with state law.” Secondly, “if the group had asked for a hearing after permits were issued, it would have ‘been tantamount to admitting the two 2.5 hour hearings (meetings) held on January 20, 2023, and March 3, 2023, did not exist and the hundreds of pages submitted to the department did not exist’.”

In a statement to the Bismarck Tribune, BNSF said it “will continue to vigorously defend our ability to construct our privately owned railroad bridge. The current bridge is nearing the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced. We have all federal, state, and local permits and approvals necessary to continue the work we’ve started to build our new bridge so we can continue safely serving our customers who are shipping interstate commodities and goods we all rely on every day.”

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