The North Dakota Department of Water Resources has issued two state permits to BNSF Railway, which are the final regulatory approvals required to replace the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge over the Missouri River between the two cities.
The decision was made despite the objections of a local citizens group, which has indicated that it may sue over the project. Friends of the Rail Bridge President Mark Zimmerman expressed disappointment with the state’s decision, which is being reviewed by FORB’s attorney, as reported by the Bismarck Tribune.
Water Resources has been debating whether to issue two sovereign lands permits—one for the construction of a new bridge and one for the removal of the old—for months. North Dakota’s sovereign lands are defined as areas located within the ordinary high-water marks of navigable lakes and streams.
Water Resources held permit hearings earlier this year. They drew extensive testimony from members of the Friends of the Rail Bridge nonprofit, who recognized the bridge’s historical, cultural, and aesthetic qualities as well as citing legal reasons for preserving the 140-year-old structure.
The railroad maintains that the aging bridge must be replaced with a modern structure to maintain safety and efficiency. After nearly three years of environmental review of the BNSF plan, the U.S. Coast Guard concluded that the bridge is approaching the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced, according to the Tribune.
BNSF has nearly all of the approvals required to construct a new structure and demolish the old. They include permits from the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a water quality certification from the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, and an agreement with the Bismarck City Commission granting the railroad access to certain city property and the right to extract soil from the land.
The Department of Water Resources on April 24 issued a statement saying it had approved the sovereign land permits but did not specify what factors influenced the decision. According to spokesman Lee Greuel, the agency “reviewed all application materials, project designs, supporting information, and project comments during the review process.”
“BNSF has obtained all the permits and approvals for our bridge project to begin construction,” said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth in a statement to the Tribune. “This is a massive private infrastructure project benefitting North Dakota’s major industries as well as the nation’s supply chain. Construction activity will ramp up this spring and summer as we build a railroad bridge capable of serving our customers for the next 100 years.”
The bridge is part of the Northern Plains National Heritage Area, which was designated by Congress, and it is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The preservation group hopes to create a pedestrian bridge tourism attraction, but has not specified how it will be funded. North Dakota State University conducted a feasibility study in 2019 and estimated the cost to be just under $7 million.
According to FORB, the issue of who owns the bridge has prevented private foundations from committing. The group has stated that the bridge is state property and cannot be removed without the approval of the State Historical Board. The board passed a resolution in March expressing support for the bridge’s preservation but noting that it lacks the authority or expertise to determine ownership.
Attorney General Drew Wrigley informed the board in March that he does not believe the board has the authority under state law to stop the bridge’s demolition because the structure has always been owned privately, the Tribune reported. BNSF maintains that the railroad holds the title to the bridge.