Free to a good home: 78-year-old highway bridge, 578 feet long, needs tender loving care. Contact the Missouri Department of Transportation.
The Highway 40 bridge over Salt Creek and the Katy Trail in Howard County is one of eight that MoDOT is offering up to anyone who wants to take over a piece of state history.
The Salt Creek bridge, which solved transportation problems for Missouri during the Great Depression, will be demolished unless someone comes forward to save it.
“We are not selling the bridge; we’re giving it away,” said Karen Daniels, senior historic preservation specialist at MoDOT.
If the department gets an acceptable proposal, the successful applicant can have the bridge at no charge. The bridge can either be preserved in its current location, or it can be hauled away and relocated.
If multiple proposals are submitted, MoDOT will lean toward those that call for maintaining or keeping the bridge in place to retain its integrity or those that at least promise to keep the bridge close to its current location, Daniels said.
“If the proposals are kind of equal, we will look at what is going to be the most publicly accessible reuse proposal,” Daniels said.
The Salt Creek bridge is eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places because of its association with the development of the American highway system. Its history is also closely related to the recovery from the Great Depression.
Under federal law, MoDOT must make historic bridges available to the public before it demolishes them.
The bridge was built in 1941, when U.S. 40, the primary east-west route across the United States, was expanding. Because the country was growing, highway construction was stepped up to handle the increased traffic and improve safety.
The bridge reflects the engineering standards of the day, including wider road design, as well as the need to fit the bridge into the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad network. After the railroad line was abandoned, it became part of the Katy Trail.
At the time Otto W. Knutson built the bridge, it cost $108,219.47. MoDOT received federal money to build it under the Federal Highway Act and the New Deal relief programs of the time.
Notably, the bridge is curved, which was unusual at the time because it was more costly than a traditional bridge. A curved bridge requires more engineering, including additional spans between structural supports to create the curve.
The main reason the historic bridge is scheduled for demolition or rescue is cost, said Dennis Heckman, a bridge engineer with MoDOT. Gas taxes in Missouri have not increased for 23 years, which he said has stalled maintenance and repair on many MoDOT projects. It would cost more to rehabilitate the bridge than to replace it.
“We have a lot less money to spend on bridges than most states,” Heckman said. “We have much lower gas taxes.”
Missouri’s fuel tax is 17 cents per gallon.
“That is 48th in the country, so 47 states get more money per mile than us,” Heckman said.
Missouri’s fuel tax has not increased since 1996, Heckman said, while most states have raised their gas tax multiple times since then. Neighboring states such as Illinois and Iowa recently boosted their gas taxes, for example.
The lag in Missouri has been detrimental to the state’s infrastructure.
“Just like if you were buying a gallon of milk in 1996, it costs much more now,” he said. “So, everything we’re building costs more, but we’re not getting any more money.”
MoDOT invests about $300 million in bridge maintenance and replacement every year, though about $1 billion is needed to keep all bridges in good condition.
MoDOT manages a total of 10,384 bridges, and 909 are rated poor by the Federal Highway Administration. That means at least 10% of Missouri’s bridges require repair work or replacement, and the state ranks fourth in the nation in the number of such bridges, according to MoDOT.
Each year, about 100 more bridges fall into the “poor” category, and MoDOT can fix or replace about 90. Thus, the number of poor bridges in Missouri continues to rise as MoDOT struggles to hold its own.
In addition to the Salt Creek bridge, MoDOT has tried to save a number of other bridges by offering them to the public. Demolition is often the only alternative if no one steps forward to claim a bridge.
Some communities have taken MoDOT up on its free offers, Heckman said. It doesn’t happen often, but one bridge was claimed and repurposed as a dog park. The city of Grandview near Kansas City claimed another bridge five years ago and plans to eventually add it to the community’s trail system.
“When MoDOT had the bridge removed from its location on Highway 40 over the Little Blue River, we arranged to have it moved down to Grandview by truck,” Grandview Public Works Director Dennis Randolph said.
Randolph said the monetary benefit of restoring the bridge was low, but it did preserve a significant piece of engineering work for people to see and study.
As a civil engineer, he also believes it important to recognize earlier engineering approaches, especially for important structures such as bridges. They are significant examples of engineering skill and creativity. The bridge Grandview took on was a steel truss bridge, which was considered not only to be important to commercial and economic investments but also a piece of public art. Entire communities often helped build them, and many were painted and decorated to reflect the community and to instill a sense of pride and identity, Randolph said.
“My experience has shown me that because people don’t often get to see a bridge such as the Highway 40 bridge when it is along an active highway, they don’t appreciate the beauty and personality of the bridge,” Randolph said.
Randolph has restored several bridges and said it’s a pleasure to see people appreciate them.
“Many people like to have weddings and other celebrations on my bridges because they provide a unique link to the past,” he said. “They offer an interesting yet very pleasant artistic backdrop to the proceedings.”