Boonville bridge provides lesson in state politics

Monday, June 6, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- For quite a while now, Katy Railroad Bridge 191.1 over the Missouri River literally has been a bridge to nowhere.

The last locomotive crossed its steel frame when Ronald Reagan was president. And it's not even possible for a train to try it again.

The tracks leading to the bridge have been ripped out and replaced with a pedestrian trail, which crosses the river over a nearby highway bridge. The lift span on the 73-year-old railroad bridge has been permanently raised up to accommodate boats below. And a span connecting the south side of the bridge to Boonville has been removed.

Yet the seemingly worthless bridge suddenly has become priceless as people debate: Should it stay, or should it go?

The question pits industrialists, who want to reuse the bridge elsewhere, against preservationists, who want it restored as part of the Katy Trail State Park. And it has prompted the resignation of a top state official, a front-page headline in The Wall Street Journal and a court battle between Republican Gov. Matt Blunt's administration and his potential 2008 challenger, Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon.

The bridge, a historic symbol for Boonville, now has become symbolic of the political differences that divide the state and nation.

To Blunt, who is intent on boosting Missouri's business climate, it makes economic sense to allow Union Pacific to dismantle the bridge, float it downstream and reuse it to build a second railroad crossing over the Osage River. The recycled bridge would allow freight to move more easily over one of Missouri's main cross-state rail lines.

To Nixon, Blunt's decision relinquishing Missouri's right to use the bridge as a trail amounts to a corporate giveaway of the highest degree -- a move that saves millions of dollars for Union Pacific, which has contributed more than $32,000 to Blunt and other Republicans in the past couple of years. Nixon contends the move could jeopardize the legal standing of the entire trail.

Terry Ehlers, a longtime civics and current events teacher at Boonville High School, describes the bridge's political value as historic vs. economic.

"Do we keep it for historic/tourism dollars?" Ehlers asks. "Or if it goes down, is it then going to be reused and you keep the economy going that way?"

The answer divided Ehlers' class, he said, just as it has politicians.

The bridge was built in 1930-1931 for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Co., which stopped using it in October 1986. The next year, the railroad sold the state a 200-mile stretch of track surrounding the bridge for use as a trail. The deal specifically excluded the bridge, but gave the state the option to use the bridge for the trail if it assumed liability for it.

In 1988, Union Pacific bought the MKT Railroad, acquiring the old bridge as part of the package. Boonville Mayor Danielle Blanck, then the local Chamber of Commerce director, said she turned down Union Pacific's offer to give away the bridge because the city couldn't afford the liability insurance.

The state never exercised its option on the bridge either -- until Dec. 23, when outgoing Department of Natural Resources Director Steve Mahfood did so as a way to stop Union Pacific from dismantling it.

Blunt's new department director, Doyle Childers, announced in April that he was reversing Mahfood's decision and instead permanently relinquishing the state's interests in the bridge. That prompted the resignation of Ron Kucera, the department's deputy director for policy, who disagreed with the decision. Nixon then filed suit challenging Childers' action.

Questioning motives

Now, it seems all parties are questioning the political motives.

Boonville's mayor and Democratic insiders point to Union Pacific's $9.8 million contract last year with Fulton-based OCCI Inc. to remove the bridge. The Fulton company gave $1,200 to Blunt on Election Day and $3,000 to the Missouri Republican Party on Feb. 28 -- around the time its vice president, Ted Kettlewell, was urging Blunt's office to take action on the bridge.

Kettlewell also is on the executive committee of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a staunch supporter of Blunt and his decision to allow Union Pacific to remove the bridge.

"It seems to me that the state Chamber of Commerce is being political because they say we're trying to ruin economic development," Blanck said.

Kettlewell and Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson both insist there is no political payback involved. They point the political finger at Nixon, whose lawsuit against the state is unusual, though not unprecedented.

"It looks to me like Jay Nixon's running for governor," Kettlewell said. "The whole thing reeks of it."

Boonville's high school civics teacher doubts the bridge dispute will have much of an impact on the 2008 governor's race. But he notes that it certainly helped get his students interested in current events.

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