Between Two Rivers: Lincoln Highway bridge at a crossroads

TAMA – The iconic Lincoln Highway bridge here will have to be replaced in some manner, but the exact strategy has yet to be decided. The Tama City Council held a work session Monday to go over the options. A vote will be taken next Monday, August 21, on how to move forward.

The tug-of-war between the 1915 bridge’s status on the National Register of Historic Places and the need to have Fifth Street as a truck route has been complicated by the extremely bad condition of the concrete deck. The original rehabilitation plan is no longer feasible.

Council member Emily Babinat asked, “Basically at this point there’s no way to keep the bridge functional and keep it historic at the same time?” Tim Monson of engineering firm Shuck-Britson said that was correct. Monson said that based on previous discussions with the council, “the thought of moving forward with something new was the preferred option.”

“It’s a historic bridge right now, and we’re going to take that away,” Monson said. Possibilities that were discussed included repairing as is, constructing a new bridge with or without the side rails, replacing the bridge with a box culvert, or bypassing it altogether.

Work on the bridge began April 15 but stopped soon afterward. Tama resident Charlie Betz wrote about the bad news in an April 25 Facebook post:

“The Lincoln Highway bridge is likely beyond repair. They removed 6 inches of blacktop off the bridge decking to get to the concrete bridge span. It was then they started finding trouble. The decking itself is 18 inch thick concrete and in a couple of the test sections they’ve dug down 12 inches and not found any good concrete.”

The city council had expected the work to be completed in 90 days. Four months later, the bridge remains unfinished and impassable, and there are concerns about the prolonged closure of the road.

Kelli Scott with Snyder & Associates said Monday that the city has probably spent around $200,000 so far between engineering and construction. Moving forward requires choosing between state and federal funding. Either has a significant time frame. Federal funding would require proving that there are no feasible alternatives to replacement, including rehabilitation without affecting the historical integrity of the bridge. Scott said Snyder’s recommendation was to get federal funding and modify the structure.

Council member Larry Thomas said something needed to be done fast, and asked about building a new road alongside Fifth Street, which would require property acquisition. Jerome Hatlewick with Shuck-Britson said existing funding could not be used for a reroute of Fifth Street and a reroute would stop any work on the bridge. In addition, he said, good concrete still would be needed in order to make the 1915 structure a pedestrian bridge.

Council members and engineers discussed the possibility of combining the best parts of the two rails to make one rail for display in the nearby roadside park. That would be more economically feasible than preserving both, Hatlewick said. Relocating the rails eliminates the possibility of using a $50,000 grant from Prairie Rivers of Iowa via the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. The rails could be retained as part of a new bridge, but the pieces would need to be stored safely during construction.

Repairing the bridge with the existing abutments means the issue would have to be revisited in 20 years, Scott said. Tama Mayor Brian Hanus, who was sworn in last week, said that would be “just putting a Band-Aid on it, it’s not fixing it. … There’s been too many Band-Aids.” Rehabilitation still means starting over with the entire process, a year at minimum, and reconstruction would likely take two years, Scott said.

The bridge is not wide enough for current standards. Trucks and farm machinery repeatedly have struck the rails. Council members discussed what the city could do to better block off the bridge and not have a significant drop-off in the roadbed at the site while waiting for any future work.

The last major rehabilitation of the bridge was in 1987. The current round of work was first discussed in 2014. Over the next five years, money was raised through donations from local residents and organizations, historic preservation groups, and the Department of Cultural Affairs, with the Iowa Department of Transportation committing to covering the remaining cost.

Three bids for work on the bridge in October 2021 came in between double and quadruple the original estimate of $150,000. The first round was invalidated and the second had no bidders, the Tama-Toledo News-Chronicle said in February 2022.

The third round of bidding was shifted from the local to the state level as a federal-aid swap application. The DOT included the bridge project in its October 2022 letting. Boulder Contracting had the lowest bid in that round, at $349,040, and the others were substantially higher.

Due to the bridge’s inclusion in 1978 on the National Register of Historic Places as a transportation structure, there are many restrictions on the type and scope of work that can be done while preserving that status. Babinat pointed out that any change to the bridge’s footprint would endanger its place on the register.

However, Babinat also said later in the meeting, “We’re out of duct tape.”

Jeff Morrison is the writer behind the website “Iowa Highway Ends.” He grew up in Traer and now lives in Cedar Rapids. A version of this column was originally published in the Between Two Rivers newsletter on Substack, betweentworivers.substack.com. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative. Please consider subscribing to the collaborative at iowawriters.substack.com and the authors’ blogs to support their work.