Court rules for Blunt in bridge dispute

Plans include dismantling bridge and rebuilding elsewhere.
Tuesday, April 25, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:09 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A judge ruled Monday for Gov. Matt Blunt’s administration in a dispute with Attorney General Jay Nixon over the fate of an old Katy Railroad bridge.

The attorney general’s office sued the Department of Natural Resources last year over its decision to give up the state’s interest in using the old bridge as part of the Katy Trail State Park. Union Pacific Railroad Co. wants to dismantle the bridge and use the steel elsewhere.

A group of trail supporters wants to try to make the bridge part of the trail. Currently, trail users are routed over a nearby highway bridge.

A 1987 purchase agreement for old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line allowed the Natural Resources Department to also eventually use the Missouri River bridge as part of the bicycle and pedestrian trail — so long as the department assumed liability for the bridge on terms acceptable to the railroad.

“This bridge was never going to be transferred,” said Mary Bonacorsi, an attorney representing Union Pacific. “It was only the question of right of use.”

When Union Pacific planned to dismantle the bridge, former DNR Director Steve Mahfood sent a letter claiming the bridge for state trail use.

After Blunt took office, the new director, Doyle Childers, reversed that decision. Childers has said it could cost the state $3 million to $11 million to convert the old railroad bridge for use with the trail.

“Essentially the money is better spent elsewhere than on the bridge,” said Kurt Schaefer, the department’s deputy director and general counsel, after the judge’s ruling.

The state agency and railroad contend Missouri has no property right to the bridge, and Cole County Senior Judge Byron Kinder agreed.

Kinder said Mahfood’s letter did not equal a legitimate offer to assume liability for the bridge and that until the department takes that step, it has no right to the bridge.

Mahfood “wrote a letter which isn’t worth the paper it’s written on,” Kinder said, and without that assumption of liability, “you don’t have a right.”

“My heart is with you, but my mind is not,” he told the attorney general’s office and others trying to save the bridge.

Deputy Attorney General Karen Mitchell said the office was likely to appeal Kinder’s ruling.

Schaefer said he hoped there would be no appeal, saying the lawsuit has been costly already, with the state funding both sides of the dispute.

“It would be unfortunate if we have to continue putting resources into this litigation,” he said.

Union Pacific said it had no comment until it reviews the judge’s decision.

The attorney general’s office argued that the ability to someday use the bridge equaled a property interest.

Nixon claimed only the legislature can give up that property right and, even then, the state would have to be compensated.

He also has said the agency’s move could open the door to legal challenges by other private property owners who gave up land for the trail, though attorneys didn’t focus on that point during arguments before Kinder.

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