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Our view: Residents must 'bake a bridge' near Nielsville

Herald editorial board

It was called the "Bridge to Nowhere," and it sparked national ire over supposed unnecessary government spending. The name even trickled down to other controversial "bridges to nowhere."

The first was at Ketchikan, Alaska. It would have cost $400 million yet would have served only 50 people on a tiny island. It became a poster child of a debate on congressional earmarks and pork-barrel spending and eventually was dropped.

Around the same time, a bridge project in southern South Dakota was called a "Bridge to Nowhere" by national TV newsman Tom Brokaw during his regular segment "The Fleecing of America." But after strong, organized and loud support from nearby residents, the Standing Bear Bridge over the Missouri River was built, thanks to $14 million in federal money and $3 million split between Nebraska and South Dakota. Approximately 700 vehicles cross it each day.

As controversy consumed the project, residents there kept up pressure by hosting numerous public meetings, politely hounding federal and state officials at every chance and organizing an association to further the cause. One area woman was jokingly accused of "baking a bridge" after she baked countless homemade treats that were served at bridge-related meetings.

These examples are relevant because they show a difference between what we consider a true waste of money in Alaska and a project connecting Nebraska and South Dakota that is a regional success story and one worthy of the dollars that funded it.

Thirty miles south of Grand Forks is a structurally deficient bridge over the Red River that for seven decades connected North Dakota and Minnesota near the small town of Nielsville, Minn. The structure has been closed to traffic since 2015.

Replacing the bridge could cost between $8 million and $12 million, which would have to be split between the states. It appears Minnesota has the funds, but North Dakota does not. Residents in the area are upset as their businesses and farms suffer and, as the Herald reported Friday, could file a lawsuit in hopes of spurring action.

North Dakota and Minnesota both have almost limitless infrastructure needs, as roads decay and decades-old bridges fall into disrepair. It's difficult to cast much blame on governments that are leery of pushing $4 million or more toward a project that would serve few instead of many. For instance, on the North Dakota side of the bridge, Traill County receives only $283,000 annually for roads upkeep.

Yet we believe the Nielsville Bridge project should stay on the front-burner, since its cost is relatively small and since residents do make strong claims for reconstruction. Residents should continue to clamor, and especially since the bridge someday could be chosen for a federal grant. It's a longshot, but it could happen.

The proposed bridge in Alaska truly was a "Bridge to Nowhere" and was rightfully nixed. The one in South Dakota was found to be necessary and, after years of pushing, secured the needed funding.

Our advice to Nielsville-area residents is to keep up the fight. If they want a bridge, they should organize like the residents near the Standing Bear Bridge in southern South Dakota.

In effect, they need to "bake a bridge."