State reaches agreement to save Katy Bridge

Friday, February 5, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 12:23 p.m. CST, Friday, February 12, 2010
Gov. Jay Nixon announced that the MKT railroad bridge over the Missouri River will be transferred to the city of Boonville Thursday. Built in 1932, the bridge is a historic landmark that spans 400-feet and is part of the 225-mile long Katy Trail State Park.

BOONVILLE – A pending pact to preserve an historic bridge over the Missouri River should end a legal battle and pave the way for making the bridge part of the Katy Trail. It’s a move that bridge advocates say will be a big boost to Mid-Missouri.

Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday at a riverside news conference that Union Pacific has agreed in principle to transfer ownership of the Katy Bridge to Boonville. Union Pacific had planned to scrap the 78-year-old span and recycle its steel for a new bridge crossing the Osage River near Jefferson City. When the state won $27 million in federal stimulus money for the Osage project, however, the railroad relented.

“This is an exciting day, not only for the people of Boonville but also for recreation enthusiasts and for those who want to preserve a piece of Missouri and railroad history,” Nixon said during an afternoon ceremony at the Katy Trail Depot in Boonville.

The Katy Trail attracts more than 300,000 visitors per year. For many Boonville residents, the bridge has been a symbol of history and hope. For the past five years, the bridge, built in 1932, has been included on the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation's list of Most Endangered Historic Places. Now, Boonville is counting on the bridge to bring more people to town.

"This is a vital part of history and another selling point to come to mid-Missouri," Boonville Mayor Dave Nicholas said.

Mary Young and her brother, Roy Stevens, attended Nixon’s news conference. Young’s family has lived in Boonville for more than 80 years and arrived shortly before the lift bridge was built.

"Watching (the bridge) go up when the tug boats and steamships came down the river was just magic really," Young said. "And to hear the trains go by, it was a good feeling to me. I loved to hear the sound in the night."

It will take a mix of public and private money to renovate the old bridge for Katy Trail use, but Nixon said he is confident it eventually will become part of the 225-mile path that follows the old route of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Co., commonly known as the Katy Railroad.

Missouri promotes the Katy Trail as the longest developed rail-to-trail project in the nation. But at Boonville, it diverts from its rail-bed route to a nearby highway bridge to cross the Big Muddy. The historic lift bridge long has been coveted for the trail. Supporters fought for more than five years in the courts, federal regulatory agencies and behind-the-scenes negotiations to preserve it.

"We have saved the bridge, opened up economic and recreational opportunities for central Missouri and the world," Nixon said. "And because of the federal grant for the new Osage River bridge, we've also increased the ability to move goods across the state of Missouri and put us in a better situation to have high-speed rail."

Union Pacific will contribute $5.6 million to the Osage River span; no date for construction is set.

Because the Katy Bridge at Boonville no longer was used for transportation, the U.S. Coast Guard years ago deemed it a navigational hazard to be removed from the river. Union Pacific, which bought the MKT Railroad in 1988, lined up a contractor to dismantle it, but Nixon, who was then attorney general, sued in 2005 to halt the project.

Nixon, who became governor in January 2009, lost in a case that went to the Missouri Supreme Court. But the legal fight delayed the dismantling, and regulatory procedures delayed it further.

Nicholas, the Boonville mayor, said it will cost between $2 million and $4 million to convert the bridge for use on the Katy Trail. The city slated $500,000 for the bridge in this year’s budget. The nonprofit Save the Katy Bridge Coalition has pledges of $360,000, said chairwoman Paula Shannon, who believes fundraising will pick up now that the project has become a reality.

Before the bridge can be crossed, workers will have to rebuild one span that had been removed. Shannon said the goal is to first get the sections closest to the shores open for pedestrians, then tackle the middle section, which can be raised and lowered to allow barges and boats to pass underneath. The Missouri River typically is used by shippers only in the warmer months, when water levels are higher.

One option is to install an elevator system that would carry people from the lowered sections of the bridge to the raised section and then back down, said Chad Sayre, of the Columbia-based engineering firm Allstate Consultants, which has been working on the project.

Missourian reporter Chelsea McGartland contributed to this report.

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