Bridge controversy hits county commission

A few seats were still open just before the start of Tuesday night’s Cowley County Commission meeting. Then about a dozen more people showed up as chairman Bob Voegele wielded the gavel. They filled the available seats and waited while more seats were brought in. Most of the people present were Arkansas City residents, concerned about the status of the East Chestnut Avenue bridge.

This week’s Cowley County Commission meeting attracted a large audience as commissioners discussed the fate of the East Chestnut Avenue Bridge in Arkansas City. 

Commissioners picked up a proposal tabled from their previous meeting: whether to approve a contract with MKEC engineering firm to complete a Bridge Life Cycle Cost Analysis for the bridge, which has been closed since early May after flooding. 

County administrator Lucas Goff had recommended that the commission seek such a report from MKEC, the county’s contracted engineering firm, so that commissioners would have more accurate information available as they decide what to do with the bridge. 

Commission chair Bob Voegele opened the meeting to a town hall type of session, giving people three minutes to make their points and enabling them to speak more than once if they weren’t done giving their opinions when their time was up. Many people took advantage of the opportunity to speak.

The bridge has been closed since the first flood in early May. Fixing the bridge itself is not at issue, though it is a fracture critical bridge. The problems needing to be addressed include the west approach to the bridge, the west part of Chestnut Avenue leading to the bridge and the Walnut River itself, which is eating away at the west bank at the area where the bridge touches it. 

As an example of the problems facing the county, Goff reminded the audience that in the first flood, eight feet of the bank was washed away by the river. The county rip-rapped the area at a cost of $20,000, and two weeks later, a second flood washed away the rip-rap and 100 feet of bank.

Asked why the county can’t rip-rap the area again, Goff replied that there’s not enough ground behind the area where the barriers on the bridge would be. Before anything could be done, that area would have to be filled in. And there is no reason to believe that a third flood would not sweep away that repair work.

One of the main problems facing anyone wanting to fix the area there is the river itself, which is in the process of creating an oxbow lake in the land north of the bridge. Someone asked if the river could just be straightened out by the county, and the commissioners said the Army Corps of Engineers would never go for it. Another person spoke about adding culverts to the river to divert the water, and commissioner Wayne Wilt also said the Corps of Engineers would not agree to that.

A number of the questions posed concerned jurisdiction. Not everyone was clear about what was the responsibility of Cowley County, the city of Arkansas City and Cresswell Township, where the bridge is located. The commissioners explained that each entity’s jurisdiction is controlled by statute, no matter what people might think is a better way of doing business. 

One man asked if the three entities might work together to get the job done, and Voegele said that is what they are trying to find out — how much they can work together without violating any regulations. A man representing Cresswell Township reminded the audience more than once that the township works on a tight budget and sometimes is challenged with finding enough money to do what they are directed by statute to do.

The commissioners tried to explain to the audience that no matter what they would like to do, many of the actions are guided by federal law and the federal law trumps the state and local law.

The commission is looking at three possible solutions to the problems with the bridge:

1. Fixing the bank by back filling the washed away area with rock and putting in steel girders to help retain the rip-rap, at a cost of $600,000 to $800,000. That would give the bridge another 15 to 30 years of life.

2. Removing the bridge and replacing it at a cost of $2 million to $2.5 million. 

3. Removing the bridge permanently and sending the traffic over the bridges that are about a half-mile north and south of Chestnut Avenue. Estimated cost of that would be between $100,000 and $200,000.

Getting the study done would take all the numbers being thrown around to more realistic numbers, Goff said.

Commissioner Alan Groom reminded the audience that he is well known for his frugality when it comes to doing studies, but he also said the bridge life cost analysis could pay for itself if the commission has better information from which to make their decisions.

Several people complained of the added distance to their commute that such a change would bring, but that argument has been disputed. 

Commissioner Wayne Wilt compared the time added to that of someone living near the East Chestnut bridge to that of the people living in the Fox Bridge area in the northeast part of the county. Those people have to go 50 miles out of their way to get around the bridge detour, Wilt said. 

Several people complained about the county bridges’ being redone before the city bridges, and Wilt said it was the lack of alternate routes nearby so people could carry on their work that made them so important to repair. 

Groom said he wished they had never made the stone bridges a symbol of Cowley County and a tourist draw because that designation gets in the way of necessary work needingbeing done. “And I approved it,” he said, but no one who agreed to the idea seemed to take the long term effects of the designation into account.

There was some talk of the county’s not caring about Arkansas City, and Voegele took that on. He is from Ark City and represents many people from Ark City, he said. He also said he’s complained over the years when he thought the Ark City people were not getting a fair shake. However, “When we sit up here,” he said, pointing to the commissioners sitting on either side of him, “we serve the whole county.”

Someone also raised the issue of Winfield’s not being willing to help Arkansas City, but that accusation was not addressed.

Several in the audience asked if the county had done anything about applying for disaster relief and if they had, why was it taking so long to get the money.

Office of Emergency Management Director Brian Stone said they had indeed applied for the FEMA grants to help with recovery from the floods, but he also reminded the audience that the federal government works slowly when it comes to getting that money to where it needs to go. He also reminded the audience that 68 Kansas counties suffered severe damage from the recent floods in addition to those in Nebraska, Missouri and Oklahoma.

The commissioners also told the audience that when they apply for the federal 80/20 grants to pay for bridges, they have to work on the bridge chosen by the feds. That may be the one they want to rebuild first, but it is not guaranteed.

Asked about the cost of moving the city water line that is on the bridge off it if the bridge were to be dismantled, Ark City City Manager Nick Hernandez said it would cost about $200,000 to $250,000 but certainly could be done.

One man in the audience cleared up some misinformation the commissioners had received. They had been told that the bridge was not used by the Ark City Fire/EMTs. The man said he had been working for the fire department for 31 years, and they always used the bridge if it was the quickest way to get where they needed to go. Having to take either of the other routes would add time to a safety call, he said, and that time could be fatal. 

One person asked why the bridge could not be painted, and Groom pointed out the problem with lead paint. That person had a sentimental attachment to the bridge and just did not want it gone. She asked why it could not be left in place and brought up to code.

Another woman said she rides to the bridge on her bike several times a week to check it, and she sees that it is in deteriorating condition.

Because it is a fracture critical bridge, it has to be monitored yearly to make sure any structural problems are caught as quickly as possible. Some audience members claimed that the county did not care about them or their bridge, but commissioners thought such attention indicated their care.

After an hour of discussion, the commissioners voted 3-0 to ask for the study in an amount not to exceed $7,000.

One person has spoken of how the audience wanted to be part of the discussion about the fate of the bridge. The hour’s discussion plus the vote in favor of the study may have been what combined for the audience to give the commissioners a round of applause.

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