News & Reviews News Wire North Dakota Attorney General indicates BNSF owns Bismarck bridge

North Dakota Attorney General indicates BNSF owns Bismarck bridge

By Trains Staff | March 6, 2023

| Last updated on February 5, 2024

Group seeking to preserve structure dating to 1882 has claimed state ownership

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Steam-powered passenger train on large truss bridge over water
BNSF’s effort to replace this bridge between Bismarck and Mandan, N.D., built by Northern Pacific — which features piers dating to 1882 and a superstructure from 1905 — is the subject of a long-running preservation fight. Northern Pacific

BISMARCK — North Dakota’s Attorney General said during a State Historical Board Friday that BNSF Railway owns the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, the first time the attorney general’s office has weighed in on the ownership issue contested by a group that wants to preserve the 140-year-old bridge, which BNSF wants to replace.

The Bismarck Tribune reports that Attorney General Drew Wrigley offered that opinion when the historical board discussed whether it had the authority to prevent the bridge from being demolished under a state law protecting historical and archaeological sites. Wrigley told the board it did not have that authority because “it as a private entity that owns the bridge.”

Wrigley did tell the board that it could still weigh in on the matter, and the board passed a resolution expressing support for preserving the bridge but saying that it does not have authority or expertise to determine ownership.

The question of ownership was raised in 2022 by the group Friends of the Rail Bridge — which seeks to preserve the bridge built by Northern Pacific, with piers dating to 1882. It raised an argument that the state actually owned the bridge because Congress did not specifically grant ownership to the railroad when North Dakota became a state in 1889 [see “Preservation group claims state owns aging North Dakota rail bridge …,” Trains News Wire, March 7, 2022]. Its 58-page document laying out that claim is available here.

The railroad has called that claim “absurd,” and the U.S. Coast Guard has said BNSF has “clear title” to the bridge in the process of determining the bridge needs to be replaced, and the best option is to build a new bridge about 20 feet upstream, then remove the current bridge [see “Preservation group seeks hearing …,” News Wire, Dec. 9, 2022]. The attorney general’s office had declined to offer an opinion on the ownership question on two previous occasions [see “State again declines to address …,” News Wire, May 10, 2022].

The Friends group raised the ownership question after the collapse of a working agreement between the BNSF, the Friends group, and the Coast Guard in 2021. That agreement required the Friends group to find a public partner to manage the effort to turn the old bridge into a pedestrian crossing; when it was unable to do so, BNSF asked that demolition efforts be allowed to proceed [see “BNSF seeks to end Missouri River bridge preservation efforts …,” News Wire, May 3, 2021].

The Friends group claimed at a Friday meeting of the State Department of Water Resources — which is considering permitting that would allow demolition of the bridge and construction of the replacement — that had it been able to find that partner, an alternative that would have placed the new bridge 92.5 feet upstream and preserve the old structure would likely have been presented for the permits. BNSF Bridge Construction Director Mike Herzog said that alternative was not feasible for financial, logistical, and environmental reasons.

Friends Secretary Ann Richardson also claimed the railroad had pressured Gov. Doug Burgum and “directly interfered with FORB’s pursuit of the state of North Dakota of a public partner,” citing what she said was a handwritten note from a state Department of Transportation employee. Herzog said the railroad “started the permitting process over five years ago and came to the table negotiating in good faith.”

4 thoughts on “North Dakota Attorney General indicates BNSF owns Bismarck bridge

  1. Looking at this Northern Pacific found the best possible place to build a bridge. Now 130 years later it would be very expensive to build a replacement anywhere else in the area.
    It has the advantage of a bluff on the west side and higher ground on the east. To reroute the railroad around one would literally need to build a couple of mountains.

    1. The new bridge will in fact be built approx. 20 feet upstream from the current bridge. This is to allow trains to continue to roll while the new one is being constructed on the new site. It may be built wide enough to accommodate double track should the need arise. Once it is completed, then BNSF would have the right to demolish the old bridge and piers in order to end its liability issues for the original structure.

      Its unfortunate that old things eventually have to succumb to age and be torn down. But trying to make the state come up with the money of preserving the bridge is a folly. These groups need to have a plan and a financial plan in place long before these types of event happen….

  2. Seems like AG Wrigley has “gummed” up the FORB pursuit action. Also kind of ironic that the BNSF Bridge Construction Director’s surname is Herzog!

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