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Question of replacing bridge needed a Solomon decision

By Staff | Jul 10, 2010

The Faribault County Board of Commissioners had a difficult decision to make last Tuesday.

At issue was the replacement of two bridges in the county.

As our front page story details, the board was about to approve the project and accept a low bid to do the work when a group of local landowners came to the meeting in protest.

The group felt that the design of the new bridge was all wrong, and would cause water to back up on their properties and flood out crops.

They felt the new bridge would be too small and water flow would be restricted. If anything, they said, the bridge (and waterway under the bridge) should be larger, not smaller. The reason? More and more water is being drained to the river each year, some of it coming from Freeborn County.

Of course, as Commissioner Tom Warmka said, folks living downstream don’t want the waterway under the bridge enlarged because they will then have the threat of flooding as too much water would come too fast down the river.

During a break in the meeting, Warmka quipped that the board was going to need the wisdom of Solomon to make this decision.

In the end, they sided with the up-stream property owners, rejected all of the bids, and called for a new bridge to be designed that would be identical to the current one, so that no more – or less – water would go downstream.

There are problems with that decision.

The county’s own engineer, John McDonald, told the board that while the design of the new bridge is different than the current one, the new one allows the same amount of water flow as the old one.

The old bridge is a single span with a square area for water flow under it. The new one was planned to be a triple span with a trapezoidal-shaped waterway under it.

That is a hard concept, but it means that the old bridge had a 40-foot wide river bed below it. The new one was designed with a 27-foot bed, but with tapered sides, giving it the trapezoid shape.

McDonald says the new bridge design would have allowed the same amount of water to flow as the old one. The landowners disagreed with that.

The other problem is the cost. Having an outside engineering firm design the bridge cost around $22,000, McDonald says. It will cost that much for the new design. Plus, a different design could increase the overall cost of the project because it could cause a need for concrete abutments and could cause the need to raise the grade of the highway as it approaches the bridge.

The actual cost of the bridge itself could go up, as well. Because there were two bridges put out for bids as one project, the low bid came in more than $100,000 lower than engineers’ estimates. There is no guarantee that will happen with a new bid, especially if the bridges are bid separately.

But, the board felt the need to protect the landowners from potential flooding of crop land due to the design of the bridge outweighed the potential cost savings.

Was it the right decision?

Not being an engineer, it would be difficult to make that determination. No one wants to see a crop flooded out, especially if it occurs year after year.

On the other hand, sometimes a government board has to trust the experts and believe they know what they are doing.

In this case, the board went against the proposal by its county engineer, and the engineering firm which developed the plans for the new bridge.

Despite being told the new design would allow the same water flow as the old one, they decided to err on the side of caution and start over – despite a big financial cost in doing so.

Were they right?

We may never know, because now the new bridge design is dead and the answer as to whether it would impede the water flow or not will never be seen.