BNSF toughens its stance on rail bridge ownership

Written by Bill Wilson, Editor-in-Chief
rail bridges
The First Street railroad bridge runs over a massive BNSF rail yard.
BNSF Railway

Regarding the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, BNSF is no longer playing around.

The Class 1 released a statement regarding the structure earlier this week, and it was rather quick and to the point, “First and foremost, BNSF has clear title to the bridge.” BNSF added the span has been continuously operated by Northern Pacific Railroad’s successors, including BNSF, since at least 1883.

BNSF wants to replace the bridge, but Friends of the Rail Bridge has been trying with all its might to preserve the span. Last week the group claimed the state of North Dakota actually owns the bridge, tying it to Equal Footing and Public Trust Doctrines which guarantee that all states that enter the union are on the same footing as the original 13. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, the state owns and protects certain natural resources for public use.

Friends of the Rail Bridge believes Congress held in trust navigable rivers like the Missouri and any structures in the riverbed even after the Northern Pacific Railway (now BNSF) was given permission to build a railroad in Dakota Territory in 1864. Friends is claiming North Dakota assumed ownership of navigable rivers from Congress when it became a state in 1889.

“[Friends of the Rail Bridge] cannot cite to any case law supporting this theory that the Missouri River’s status as a navigable waterway deprived the railroad of its ownership of the Bismarck Bridge when the state of North Dakota achieved statehood on Nov. 2, 1889,” BNSF said in a statement. “On the other hand, both federal and state case law, including one federal decision that specifically mentions the Bismarck Bridge by name, explain that railroad bridges built over rivers are part of and owned by the railroad just the same as railroad bridges built over land.”

The environmental impact statement of the BNSF Bridge Replacement Project is expected to be released in a few weeks.

Read more articles on railroad bridges.

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