News & Reviews News Wire BNSF gets final regulatory approval for new Bismarck bridge

BNSF gets final regulatory approval for new Bismarck bridge

By Trains Staff | April 25, 2023

| Last updated on February 5, 2024

Preliminary work begins as preservation group mulls lawsuit

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Train coming off bridge on broad curve
A Burlington Northern coal train crosses the Bismarck-Mandan bridge over the Missouri River in 1991. BNSF has received final regulatory permission to replace the aging bridge. Tom Danneman

BISMARCK, N.D. — BNSF Railway has received the final regulatory clearance for its long-delayed effort to replace its aging bridge over the Missouri River in North Dakota, and has begun preparatory work.

A group that wants to save the bridge as a pedestrian and bike path, however, indicates it may take its effort to court.

The Bismarck Tribune reports the North Dakota Department of Water Resources has issued the two sovereign land permits needed to build the new bridge and remove the old structure. Those permits are needed because the projects are within the ordinary high-water marks of a navigable waterway.

The railroad had earlier received necessary clearances from the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the state Department of Environmental Quality. It also reached agreement with Bismarck to access city property and obtain soil during the project.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth told the Tribune, in a statement acknowledging the final permits, “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.”

McBeth said prep work such as tree removal has already begun. She also said the project’s cost has increased to approximately $100 million, up about $40 million since the railroad began seeking federal permits five years ago.

BNSF has been trying for years to obtain permission to replace the bridge, a process it outlined at an industry conference in 2019 [see “BNSF focuses on regulatory challenges …,” Trains News Wire, Jan. 8, 2019]. Its piers, of non-reinforced stone masonry, date to 1882, while the superstructure was replaced in 1905. Because of its age, the bridge is subject to a 25-mph slow order.

But that effort has been slowed the desire of the group Friends of the Rail Bridge to preserve the structure. An agreement between the railroad, the preservation group, and the Coast Guard to pursue a preservation effort fell apart in 2021, with BNSF saying the Friends group had failed to meet the terms of that agreement [see “BNSF seeks to end Missouri River bridge preservation efforts …,” News Wire, May 3, 2021].

The preservation group subsequently argued that the state, not the railroad, owns the bridge — an argument based in part on the fact the bridge predates North Dakota statehood and Congress did not specifically transfer ownership to BNSF predecessor Northern Pacific. [The group’s full argument is laid out here]. The railroad has called that argument “legally absurd,” and the federal government and North Dakota’s Attorney General have supported BNSF’s ownership [see “North Dakota Attorney General indicate BNSF owns Bismarck Bridge,” News Wire, March 6, 2023].

But Friends of the Rail Bridge President Mark Zimmerman said the group’s attorney is reviewing the Water Resources decision. “We could certainly look at a challenge in court,” he told the Tribune, saying the group “stands firm” on its belief the state owns the bridge, among other issues.

A 2019 study indicated it would cost almost $7 million to turn the bridge into a pedestrian crossing. No funding plans for that project have been set.

3 thoughts on “BNSF gets final regulatory approval for new Bismarck bridge

  1. Michael Larkin:

    I agree with you. The Friends of the Bridge want the bridge, but don’t want to assume responsibility of the bridge. OK–let’s say they get the bridge and in the future someone falls and sues the Friends, what happens next.

    Ed Burns
    Retired Clerk NP BN BNSF from Northtown, MN

  2. Friends of the Rail Bridge wants something for nothing. Worse, they don’t want to assume responsibility for the bridge when it inevitably crashes into the river, blocking it and polluting it.

You must login to submit a comment