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BNSF gearing up for Burlington, Iowa, bridge work

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The ripple effects of what would happen if funding hadn't been secured for the BNSF railroad bridge between Burlington, Iowa, and Gulfport, Ill., could have been grim, according to the Burlington Hawkeye.  On top of the obvious safety concerns -- despite daily inspections -- delivery of goods would be delayed as inspections took days and trains crossed the bridge one at a time.

Thanks to Congress, and
the federal stimulus dollars, Americans won’t have to suffer that fate. Earlier
this year, enough dollars were amassed to get construction started this fall.

Touring the bridge with
Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, on Wednesday afternoon, BNSF vice president of
government and public policy Paul Nowicki laid out what could have been and
what will be.

"The contractor has
already rented space in downtown Burlington … and is open for business,"
Nowicki said.

He said the contract
manager that was hired also oversaw construction of the 1994-dedicated Great
River Bridge. David Duke, a Burlington native and Chicago resident, oversaw the
$50 million vehicle-traffic bridge project, which was a joint effort between
Iowa and Illinois. At the time, Burlington’s bridge had the 13th longest span
in the United States, at 660 feet.

Nowicki said converting
the old swing-span bridge into a lift-span bridge, which will double the
navigation channel for barges in the Mississippi River, will bring 200-210 workers
to Burlington. He added that it’s all going to be union labor, with some
workers being local hires and others outside experts.

Nowicki praised Sen. Tom
Harkin and Congressman Dave Loebsack, both Iowa Democrats, for finally securing
enough funding to convert the bridge. He said Harkin has been working to raise
funds since 1991 when the bridge was deemed a hazard to navigation.

Actually, the total was
$28.7 million in stimulus funds, though Harkin and other Iowa members of
Congress had over the years raised the rest up to the $55.5 million needed to
get started. The total cost is about $56 million, and BNSF will make up the
remaining 1 percent.

Nowicki said the
swing-span method now takes about 50 minutes to open the bridge, get a barge
through the navigation channel and close the bridge again.

"Ten or so times a
year, they don’t make it," Nowicki said. "This will add years to its
life."

Once the lift-span bridge
opens, in 12-15 months, the time will be cut in half; plus, wind speed will not
be a factor in determining whether the bridge can be opened for barge traffic.

While construction is
going on to convert the bridge to a lift-span bridge, Nowicki said BNSF is
trying to secure funding to make improvements to the rest of the bridge.

That project will be $133
million, with BNSF making up $100 million of it. He said, with the help of
Culver, the railway submitted an application to the federal government for a
Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery Grant, or TIGER, for $25
million. Nowicki said the remainder would be made up by the state of Illinois.

While BNSF is awaiting
funding, Nowicki said the hope is to be able to get work under way to coincide
with the lift-span conversion efforts. He said the engineering and
environmental work is already complete for the second part of the bridge
project.

During construction, the
bridge will be closed between 24 hours and 72 hours at a time as new spans are
put in place.

The first railroad bridge
here was built in 1868. The current bridge was built in 1891, and it was the
first steel bridge across the Mississippi River. Nowicki said at the time the
average train weighed 400 tons; coal trains now haul as much as 13,000 tons.

"The bridge was
overengineered for the era, but it paid off 118 years later," Nowicki
said.

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