Bridge too decrepit to use, too costly to tear down

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 9, 2008 - 12:12 AM

Washington and Dakota counties are still looking for money and resources to remove a rusting bridge, built in 1895, that connects Inver Grove Heights and St. Paul Park across the Mississippi River.

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The JAR Bridge between St. Paul Park and Inver Grove Heights is awaiting at least partial demolition because it’s considered dangerous to barge traffic and to anyone who might trespass on it.

Photo: Kevin Giles, Star Tribune

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Removal of a deteriorating Mississippi River swing bridge that once connected Washington and Dakota counties has hit another snag because a federal agency must evaluate the bridge's cultural and historical significance.

Closed to vehicle traffic since 1999 and trains since 1980, the JAR Bridge between St. Paul Park and Inver Grove Heights is awaiting at least partial demolition because it's considered dangerous to barge traffic and to anyone who might trespass on it.

"This bridge is not safe for kids, for pedestrians, for a trail," said Wayne Sandberg, assistant county engineer in Washington County. "It's very dangerous and people need to stay off it."

The bridge was built over the Mississippi River in 1895 -- when Grover Cleveland was president -- for the South St. Paul Beltline Railroad to connect the South St. Paul stockyards with main rail lines that ran through St. Paul Park. Trains traveled on the top deck, cars on the bottom. The JAR Bridge, also known as the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Bridge or Newport Rail Bridge, was the metro area's last toll bridge for vehicle traffic. Crossing it once cost 75 cents.

The bridge was popular with commuters trying to avoid traffic jams at the Wakota freeway bridge on Interstate Hwy. 494 a few miles to the north.

Washington and Dakota counties inherited the bridge when it went into tax forfeiture after several years of private ownership.

The east side of the bridge, in Washington County, no longer is connected to public roads, Sandberg said. That land is now owned by Marathon Oil Corp., which has a refinery there. On the west side, in Dakota County, a guardrail blocks the road to the bridge. But on a recent summer day, two young men were fishing from the automobile deck while others were walking atop the upper train deck. Many of the railings are broken or missing and the end of the Dakota County side -- where the swing span would connect if it wasn't locked open -- has no barriers. Graffiti covers the narrow paved road inside the bridge.

The U.S. Coast Guard no longer wants to lead the evaluation of the bridge's culture and history, a necessary step before removal, Sandberg said. He said the counties are working to find another agency to do that. The Coast Guard wants at least some of the bridge removed because the swing portion -- which is turned parallel to shore to allow barges to pass -- leaves a narrow navigation channel.

"Potential danger is high," Sandberg said. "When that bridge is dark at night it's pretty difficult for the barge operator to see anything."

Removal of the 1,661-foot bridge will cost at least $5 million, he said.

"We just don't have the resources to turn this thing back into a functional bridge," Sandberg said. Parts of the bridge could be saved for their historical novelty, he said, such as installing the swing span in the park or reusing portions as pedestrian bridges. But nobody has indicated interest in doing so, he said.

"It always a matter of who wants this thing. It's pretty big," Sandberg said. "Anyone who takes it immediately assumes all the future liability for it."

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554

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