In September 2015, the closure of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail Bridge spanning Wolf Creek interrupted continuity of the 52 mile trail that runs between Cedar Falls and Hiawatha. After a special meeting held by the Black Hawk County Conservation Board (BHCCB) last month, it would appear a solution to restoring the trail could take significantly longer than earlier imagined.
On March 28, the County Conservation Board met with members of the Preserve the Cedar Valley Nature Trail group, represented by Roger White and Dick Dewater, to discuss the status of the Wolf Creek Bridge and explore creative alternatives that might help restore access for trail users traveling between Gilbertville and La Porte City.
Issues with the bridge were first made public in February 2015, after an inspection revealed structural deficiencies that prompted officials to ban all motorized traffic on it. Seven months later, the bridge was closed altogether after a follow-up inspection indicated its condition had worsened considerably.
After its closure, County Conservation officials, who have jurisdiction over the bridge, approached the City of La Porte City with a range of proposed solutions. The two repair options presented included one expected to extend the bridge’s lifespan 5-10 years, at a cost of $1.34 million. The second option, thought to give the bridge another 30-50 years of service, was pegged at $1.49 million. A complete replacement of the bridge was estimated to cost $2.39 million.
In an effort to find a cheaper long-term solution, a plan was developed that would bypass the bridge altogether, rerouting trail traffic into La Porte City, at an estimated cost of $600,000. In May 2016, Mayor David Neil and members of the City Council signed a letter in support of the realignment plan, in hopes of securing a State Trails Recreational Grant that would have covered a large part of the costs associated with realignment.
The Preserve the Cedar Valley Nature Trail group, however, objected to the realignment plan, with claims it was unsafe and that the bridge could be repaired for less money than realigning the trail. In support of that claim, the group submitted a report authored by the J.F. Brennan Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which outlined an assessment of the bridge and the costs associated with proposed repairs.
In September 2016, upon review of Brennan’s proposal, Black Hawk County Engineer Catherine Nicholas indicated future repairs beyond those Brennan outlined would add significant cost to the plan, stating in a letter to the County Conservation Board, “The least expensive option is to close the bridge and relocate the trail.”
County Conservation, however, was forced to go back to the drawing board when the request for a State Trails Recreation Grant was not funded. In an e-mail to The Progress Review, the BHCCB stated, “Realignment of the trail was the option the BHCCB chose based on costs [and] feasibility. With the State Recreational Trail grant that would have funded a large portion of this project being denied, we are reviewing other options.”
Following a presentation by the Preserve the Cedar Valley Nature Trail group, the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors set aside $77,000 to be used during Fiscal Year 2018 to pay for engineering work related to repairing the bridge. With those repairs estimated to cost up to a million dollars more than the initial realignment plan, County Conservation officials currently do not have sufficient funding sources identified for any bridge repair work to begin. Until that funding has been secured, trail users can expect any future engineering work on the bridge to wait.
“The dollars budgeted in FY2018 are for preliminary design engineering for the proposed long-term repair of the Wolf Creek Bridge. However, the BHCCB would need to see a clear path to funding the project before we would contract for the engineering,” the BHCCB stated.
At present, other major funding sources the Conservation Board might look to tap are not promising. At last month’s meeting, BHCCB Chairman, Eric Dowell, noting that in previous meetings with the Conservation Board, Senator Bill Dotzler was “fairly confident” he could secure state funding for the project, asked White and Dewater if an update from the legislature was available. White responded that the latest information he received from Dotzler was that funding for the bridge repair would depend upon state revenue estimates. Given that the state announced a budget shortfall of more than $130 million in mid-March, it would appear unlikely that Dotzler will be able to find financial support for trail bridge repairs from the legislature anytime soon, a sentiment shared by Black Hawk County Supervisor Linda Laylin.
In an e-mail to The Progress Review, Laylin referenced a conversation with legislators in Des Moines, writing, “We brought the CVNT [Cedar Valley Nature Trail] to their attention and mentioned that we have 18 trail bridges in [Black Hawk County] and many would be in need of repair and/or replacement in [the coming] years, and the County would need funding assistance to keep these bridges open for use. The reception we received was lukewarm at best.”
Laylin was also candid about the limited resources she believes the Board of Supervisors will be able to commit to future maintenance of the nature trail.
“While all of us would prefer to see the bridge restored, it is highly unlikely the funds will be easily or quickly identified to do so, and while I can’t speak for all board members, I believe most board members feel the County’s contribution for the project will be the engineering costs ($77,000). It will most likely take years to raise $1.5 or $2.5 million so the bridge will be closed a long time, but perhaps the cyclists [Preserve the Cedar Valley Nature Trail Group] are working on several fund raisers that I’m unaware of,” she wrote.
With county and state funding unlikely in the near future, some have suggested approaching the Black Hawk County Gaming Association (BHCGA) for relief. In 2015, BHCGA committed $1.1 million for the County Conservation’s Hartman Reserve Nature Center expansion and renovation project. Unanticipated changes, primarily driven by building code standards, forced major design changes to be made before the project could be sent out for bids. Despite those changes, bids for the project still came in over the $2.2 million that had already been raised. While the BHCCB expects the Hartman project to be completed later this year, until then, typical funding sources they would seek to tap for nature trail bridge repairs will not be available.
“The vast majority of funds for the Hartman project came from grants and donations. Funding sources include public/private donations; REAP funds, Community Foundation Grants, Black Hawk County Gaming Association Grant as well as a State CAT Grant. Until the Hartman project is complete and grants closed, allocation of our REAP funds would be the primary source of income that could be used for other projects,” the BHCCB stated.
Without a significant funding source currently available, members of the BHCCB and the preserve the Cedar Valley Nature Trail group were looking to “think outside the box” at last month’s meeting. Suggestions from White included promoting a design competition among engineering firms to produce a potentially lower-cost design for the project, and exploring the possibility of cantilevering, or attaching a pedestrian path directly to the existing railroad bridge that crosses Wolf Creek.
In response to those suggestions, some questioned what incentive engineering firms would have to develop a low-cost repair solution in a situation where there was no guarantee such a design would result in winning the bid. Others questioned why the Preserve the Cedar Valley Nature Trail group would suggest a cantilever after making the issue of safety, specifically crossing railroad tracks, as a major part of their objection to rerouting the trail around the bridge. It was noted that attaching such a structure where walkers and cyclists could be as close as two feet to a moving train is not a scenario the Iowa Northern Railroad is likely to approve.
In terms of local fundraising for the bridge repair project, White told the Conservation Board he was hopeful that the efforts of local cyclists and trail enthusiasts could raise as much as $50,000. In response to Dowell’s question about what expectations there are for the project’s timeline, Dewater admitted it was difficult to know, speculating that perhaps the year 2020 was a possibility.
As County Conservation continues the work of maintaining the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, the issue of keeping it open for trail users extends beyond the closed bridge in La Porte City. Last September, flooding washed out significant portions of the trail near Gilbertville, prompting the closure of those sections until repairs can be made. And the La Porte City bridge is not the only one on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail in need of repair.
“Wolf Creek Bridge is one of 18 bridges on the CVNT. Currently, nine have been identified as needing repair in the near future. In the past five years over $6,000,000 of Federal, State and local funds have been spent on the CVNT for bridge repair/replacement, flood damage, resurfacing and repairing. We would want all residents to know we value the CVNT and commit a large amount of resources to keep it operational. The CVNT, however, is only part of our operations, which includes nearly 9,000 acres of land including; parks, wildlife areas, a nature center, wetlands, and river accesses,” the BHCCB said.
The combination of a limited budget and personnel continue to challenge the BHCCB’s mission of maintaining their portions of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. Until a long-term funding source can be developed for maintaining the existing, and in some cases, growing trail systems in Black Hawk County, it appears that efforts to keep them open will continue to be a struggle.
The Black Hawk County Conservation Board typically meets on the second Thursday of each month at 5 PM. Citizens are welcome to attend and are given the opportunity to speak, if they so wish. Logon to www.blackhawkcountyparks.com for the latest information about meeting agendas, dates, times and locations. Citizens may also share their thoughts and opinions about the bridge issue by sending an e-mail to conservation@co.black-hawk.ia.us. Correspondence may be sent to Black Hawk County Conservation Board, 1346 West Airline Highway, Waterloo, Iowa 50703. E-mails and/or letters submitted will be shared with the entire Conservation Board and entered into public record.