The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 30, 2013

Group hopes to save 120-year-old bridge

Mitchell Schmidt
Iowa City Press-Citizen

---- — KALONA — A group of area residents hopes their fundraising efforts can save a more than 120-year-old Washington County bridge from destruction.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that while members of Friends of Bunker Mill Bridge say they are making solid headway on raising the $5,000 needed to perform an engineering study on the historic bridge, the actual cost of repair could be more than $150,000.

A 2007 study of the Bunker Mill Bridge — which spans the English River just south of Kalona on Nutmeg Avenue — estimated restoration, including new decking and railings, to allow pedestrian traffic on the 1887 structure would cost about $130,000. The work also would bring the bridge up to date with accessibility standards.

However, suspected arson to the bridge in August has officials now estimating those updates to be much more costly.

“It was going to have to have substantial work, to the tune of $130,000 to $150,000,” Kalona City Administrator Ryan Schlabaugh said. “Now with the damage that’s occurred, there hasn’t been a true structural engineer to take a look at it and determine what those costs would be now.”

That hasn’t deterred Friends of Bunker Mill Bridge from conducting a fundraising campaign to get an updated estimate for the study.

“We’ve already raised $1,200,” the group’s managing director, Suzanne Micheau, said last week. “People are just writing us checks, it’s not going to be hard to accomplish.”

Micheau said the final goal is to purchase the bridge from the county and raise the money to restore it.

The nonprofit group organized earlier this month after rumors began circulating that county officials were discussing demolition.

Firefighters responded early Aug. 11 to a fire on the bridge. The flames had spread out of control by the time firefighters arrived at the rural road just south of town, leaving the wooden bridge damaged. Fire officials have said they suspect arson.

“Everyone heard that the bridge was going to be taken away because there were no funds to fix it,” Micheau said.

The county-owned bridge has been closed to vehicle traffic since 2004, and while county officials have floated ideas of restoration or demolition for several years, no official decision has been made, Washington County Engineer Jacob Thorius said.

The most recent estimates by Washington County officials place the cost of demolition at more than $80,000, while building an entirely new bridge could cost upwards of $2 million. With Highway 1 crossing the English River only a mile west, local officials aren’t likely to replace the bridge if demolished.

Thorius said the Washington County Board of Supervisors is awaiting proposals from the Friends of Bunker Mill Bridge and North Skunk River Greenbelt Association, a Grinnell-based group that works to save bridges across the state.

“Long term the responsibility for the bridge, I think, is the ultimate issue that the county is trying to figure out and answer right now,” Thorius said.

Thorius said it’s not unheard of for the county to sell a closed bridge to an interested party or nearby landowner at a low cost.

“If somebody were to buy the bridge and be the owner, in my opinion, they would be ultimately responsible for everything in regards to the bridge,” Thorius said.

Members of Friends of Bunker Mill Bridge assured the Washington County Board of Supervisors during a recent meeting that if the group buys or leases the bridge, the organization would assume full responsibility for it and supply comprehensive liability insurance. The board has directed county staff to review the proposal from the organization and group members planned to meet with property owners involved in the project.

One reason the Bunker Mill Bridge, also called Old River Bridge, is so desirable to area residents as well as Kalona and Washington County officials is its inclusion in the Bunker Mill Trail plan, which would connect Kalona and nearby Richmond. About 95 percent of the Bunker Mill Trail’s design has been completed.

Kalona officials, determining the bridge to be the perfect asset to connect the two communities via trail, began seeking grants, Schlabaugh said. In its early years, the bridge was the only way to travel between Kalona and nearby Richmond.

While the fire damage has stalled the trail project, Schlabaugh said the city still is committed to the trail and bridge.

“Our main focus has to be a good grant writing mechanism and we have been at this point,” he said.

The trail project was estimated to cost about $1.1 million before last month’s fire, which likely pushed the cost even higher, Schlabaugh said.

So far the city has been granted $292,000 through Iowa Department of Transportation enhancement funds for trail pavement and is in the process of trying to garner another $75,000 through Iowa Department of Natural Resources REAP funds

Remaining funds would come from private donations and the Washington County Riverboat Foundation — a foundation that receives 3 percent of the Riverside Casino and Golf Resort’s proceeds through annual grants and mini grants.