April 20, 2020, is the “drop-dead date” for supporters of the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge to find someone to assume ownership of the internationally known landmark before plans to demolish it are finalized.
Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) officials set that deadline Monday afternoon during a 67-minute meeting required by the “Section 106” historic-preservation process before a bridge can be removed. Citing its deteriorating condition, MoDOT closed the near-century-old bridge to traffic five years ago this month. A replacement bridge opened Aug. 2.
More than a dozen MoDOT officials, representatives of other agencies, including the National Parks Service, and bridge supporters attended the meeting either in person at Jefferson City or by teleconference. Rich Dinkela, president of the Route 66 Association of Missouri, and Judy Wallmark, secretary-treasurer of the Route 66 Gasconade River Bridge Guardians, attended in person. Other Guardians attended by phone, as did Gary Sosniecki, a board member of the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society.
Meeting organizer Karen Daniels, MoDOT senior historic preservation specialist, and Ryan Libbert, MoDOT transportation project manager, explained that a tentative timeline already has been set for demolishing the bridge. Contractors’ bids will be opened in May, a contract will be awarded in June, and a notice to proceed will be issued in July.
Asked by a Guardian for a drop-dead date for saving the bridge, Daniels said MoDOT will need any proposals by April 20, which gives MoDOT and other entities involved in the process three weeks to review them before the bid letting.
She emphasized that any proposal for saving the bridge must be complete, that the bid-letting clock will not stop if a proposal is deficient.
Daniels explained that MoDOT made a “good-faith effort” to market the bridge for reuse for two years without success.
“Why is it necessary to abolish the bridge?” a Guardian asked. “It’s not hurting anybody. It’s not costing anybody any money to sit there.”
“We can’t just abandon the bridge,” a MoDOT representative replied. “It essentially boils down to liability.”
Dinkela asked how often liability is an issue for MoDOT. “How many times has MoDOT been dinged by things like that?”
A MoDOT official said the agency is more concerned about a flood taking out the bridge. But Dinkela responded that engineers who have inspected the bridge “had no worries about that at all. . . . They said the bridge isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
A National Parks Service representative asked for an explanation of the policy that MoDOT can’t abandon bridges. “How might exceptions be considered?”
“The Missouri Constitution does not allow us to abandon bridges,” a MoDOT official replied, citing an opinion from its chief counsel. “We can give it to somebody, but if we can’t give it to somebody, we have to remove it.”
Dinkela reviewed the Guardians’ efforts to save the bridge, including recent discussions with the Laclede County Commission and the City of Lebanon. He said the Guardians haven’t given up looking for a new owner for the bridge.
Later in the meeting, Wallmark said she still hopes Laclede County commissioners will find a way to take the bridge “under their umbrella, because they already have a liability policy.”
After about 20 minutes of discussion on why the bridge should be saved, an issue that had been discussed at prior MoDOT meetings, Daniels steered the focus to this meeting’s stated purpose: “mitigation measures” if MoDOT has to remove the bridge. By mitigation, she meant measures to minimize the impact of the bridge being demolished.
Those in attendance offered several ideas. Among them:
--Sosniecki said the Lebanon-Laclede County Route 66 Society continues to support efforts to save the bridge, but if the bridge is demolished, the organization wants pieces for display in Route 66-themed Boswell Park and at the Lebanon Route 66 Museum. Daniels said that has been done before, usually with small pieces, and that MoDOT will need to know beforehand what size pieces Lebanon wants.
--Dinkela noted that several truss bridges in Oklahoma have been preserved on concrete pillars in park-like settings.
--Jax Welborn, a Guardian from Pulaski County, proposed a bridge museum at the site of the Gasconade River Bridge. Daniels pointed out which agencies could help with a museum.
Welborn also spoke on behalf of the people of Hazelgreen, immediately east of the bridge, “who lost everything when I-44 came in.” She said fathers and grandfathers of Hazelgreen residents helped build the bridge. When the bridge closed, two businesses suffered, she said. “I hear from them often about the bridge being their family history – and the loss of the bridge was part of their history.”
Daniels said she, too, hopes the bridge still can be saved. “It’s just that we have to work through the processes. . . .
“Our hope is we don’t have to do any of these mitigation measures.”
Daniels said she will send a list of the proposed mitigation measures to those who attended, asking them to rank their preferences.