By John D. Taylor
HOT SPRINGS – Facing a courtroom full of residents who wanted old US Highway 18 and the Chilson Bridge that sends the road across the Mickelson Trail, about six miles northeast of Edgemont, to remain open – so ambulances and fire trucks could reach them, so their Hot Springs commute times wouldn’t change – Fall River County commissioners reopened the closed road and will look closer at three courses potential remedies for the bridge.
The county has discussed this bridge, the 10 miles of road connected to it and what to do about both for the last several months. But the recent brouhaha began at the commissioners’ March 22 meeting, when they decided to temporarily close the road and the bridge during a public hearing on the situation because inspections show the bridge, 46 feet above the Mickelson Trail, is becoming more unsafe each year.
Closing the bridge, road
Earlier this year, the county hired Brosz Engineering’s Senior Engineer, Ross Eberle, to investigate the county’s options with the bridge and to coordinate with federal and state officials.
Eberle shared his findings in March: Every year, he said, inspectors come quite close to closing Chilson Bridge. The 183-foot long iron truss bridge was installed during the 1930s and hasn’t been upgraded since 1980. No matter what options Eberle considered for the bridge – a new bridge, repairing the old bridge, and several varieties of crossings, including an at-grade crossing – the costs still tallied more than $1 million.
Eberle told the commissioners in March replacing the bridge or an at-grade crossing seemed to be the best long-term bet, principally because the county could get state and federal money for the project, paying 20 percent of the costs.
Traffic counts, according to county Highway Superintendent Randy Seiler, show about 100 cars using the road daily.
In March, Bruce Murdock, the landowner on whose property the bridge rests, said he would be most encumbered by closing the road and bridge, which he agreed is bad. But Murdock was not in favor of spending tax money on the bridge because county taxes are high enough, he said. Murdock also said he believed only a few minutes additional commute time would be added using alternative routes.
Also, when Commissioner Joe Falkenburg asked at the March hearing how many people wanted the bridge and road closed, a clear majority raised their hands. The at-grade crossing received only two votes.
So, the county ordered Seiler to close the road and post the appropriate signs – a trial run for a permanent closure.
During the next two weeks, the commissoners’ phones began to ring. And by the April 5 meeting, a large contingent from the southern end of the county formed to voice their concerns at the meeting.
A principal dissenter against closing the bridge and road, Jim Angell, disputed Murdock’s March claims. Murdock’s contention that he was the principal person affected by the road closure was bunk, Angell told the commissioners.
“Half of my neighbors are here,” Angell said, glancing around the room at those impacted by the closure.
Angell also disputed Murdock’s claim about commute times. Angell drove the alternate routes and said it took nine more minutes to reach Edgemont, six minutes more to reach Hot Springs, not Murdock’s couple minutes. These times assumed a person drove on dry, clear roads at the posted speed limit.
Lyle Rudloff told the commissioners he relies on the old Highway 18 to get where he needs to go.
“I like it,” he said, “it’s beautiful. So do many others. They rely on it, too.”
Rudloff griped about vehicle registrations rising 20 percent, the wheel tax and six cents per gallon taxes on gas, and how this is supposed to be used for repairing roads
Choppy Tikis said she and her 88-year-old husband, John, live on the road, and if it is closed ambulance crews and fire trucks wouldn’t be able to get to them. Since John can’t leave the home any more, they would be in dire straights.
“We need this bridge,” she said.
Clair Sutton, who lives on Rocky Ford Road, wondered why, if the bridge passed its last inspection, the commissioners closed it. Bridge weight limits are posted at 6 tons. He suggested dropping it to 3 tons, leaving well enough alone.
Seiler worried about someone falling through the span, and said bridge inspectors are liable if anything happens.
Edgemont city council member, said Edgemont was concerned about emergency services reaching the community with the road closed. She wanted to know the county’s plan for dealing with the road and bridge.
“This is huge,” she said, “if someone has a heart attack or a child emergency, this will be a big deal.”
Attorney Jane Long, who said she was representing the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told the commissioners that the tribe owns 1,200 acres of land near the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and closing the road would block access to this land, where tribal members hold sacred ceremonies such as sun dances and sweats.
“There’s no alternative to get back there,” she said, “unless they go through the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, where the Cheyenne River crossing makes it inaccessible, and rough roads make it nearly impossible to get there without the road.”
Ben Hobbs liked the idea of at-grade crossing, but lower down on the Mickelson Trail, to avoid all the fill dirt work that bumped up the cost of the project.
Another resident drove the alternate routes and said it would add 12 minutes to his commute. He also worried about emergency vehicles reaching people in the southern end of the county. Familiar with bridges because he works with structural engineers all the time, he wondered if the bridge could be repaired to make it safe. He said structural supports and rebar cages could be used to accomplish this.
Commissioner candidate Paul Nabholz wondered if the bridge was as bad as it was portrayed to be. Rust – one of the problems inspectors pointed out – doesn’t necessarily mean the steel is compromised, he said. It could just be a “rust bloom.”
Susan Watts, executive director of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, wondered about putting a bridge at Rocky Ford.
Murdock said he would be amenable to relocating an at-grade crossing further into his property, down the Mickelson Trail, to avoid the additional dirt work fill, but he wanted to negotiate with the county for doing this.
“I’m fine with it, at grade,” he said, “but I don’t want to give up land. That’s 17 acres that would need infrastructure, fences, crossings to create a new pasture.” He also worried about cattle being hit by cars at night, because he sees a lot of “not essential” traffic at night on the road.
Falkenburg admitted the commissioners may have been too hasty closing the bridge and road, considering all the calls he’d received about it, especially worries about emergency vehicles reaching people. He thought an at-grade crossing might work, otherwise he was going to vote to replace the bridge.
Commissioner Joe Allen said his motivation for closing the bridge was safety: The bridge didn’t appear to be safe, based on reports.
Ortner said his position – in the short term – was to re-open the bridge at the 6-ton weight limit, inspect it again immediately and keep it open at whatever weight limit is safe, with signs noting the county was not liable for overweight vehicles using the bridge. From his perspective, an overweight vehicle going through the bridge was a “bad deal,” but the county could countersue someone trying to collect liability damages on this.
A few moments later Ortner revised his stance to include negotiating with Murdock for a lower-down at-grade crossing to reduce costs – his preferred choice – followed by replacing the bridge.
Allen and Falkenburg then made a motion to do exactly that – reopen the bridge at the 5-ton weight limit, do an immediate inspection (likely this week) and keep it open unless the inspection says it is unsafe; talk to Murdock about the at-grade crossing; then consider bridge replacement costs.
The motion was approved unanimously, with Ann Abbott joining the meeting by phone specifically for this vote.